One of my favourite films ever is the poker movie Rounders. I can watch that every time it comes on the TV and I always find something new, even just a throwaway line or the look on someone’s face, that makes it a pleasure to sit through. The director of Rounders, John Dahl, has only made a handful of features in over 20 years, and this is the latest.
You Kill Me
A great advertisement for A.A.
Like a cross between My Name Is Joe and Grosse Pointe Blank, You Kill Me is the story of Frank Falenczyk, an alcoholic hitman from Buffalo, New York who screws up a job for his Polish mob employers and is sent out to San Francisco to dry out. There, he joins AA (no, not the roadside assistance crowd. The other one) and tentatively falls in love with a woman he meets while working in a funeral home. Of course he must eventually return to his old life when a local Irish family tries to move in on the Poles.
With this 2007 flick, director John Dahl strikes a tone slightly to the whimsical side of his biggest hit The Last Seduction, switching out the coolly manipulative Linda Fiorentino for the more shambling Ben Kingsley. Yes, you heard me: this movie stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Ghandi himself, as a down-on-his-luck, drunken, Polish-American hitman. And he pulls it off admirably. In fact all the gangsters in You Kill Me are cast for the strength of the actor as opposed to any kind of ethnic verisimilitude. Philip Baker Hall plays Roman, the head of the Polish family and Dennis Farina shows up as his Irish opposite number – his classic Italian-American Chicago accent slightly at odds with the name O’Leary – but these are irrelevant quibbles in the grand scheme of things.
This is a very well-structured film, as you would expect from someone of Dahl’s calibre. Even though the movie is about Frank, the story cross-cuts back and forth to show the steady takeover of Roman’s operation by O’Leary’s mob. As such, you end up more invested in what’s happening back in Buffalo than if Frank had just got a phone call at the end of Act 2 to tell him to get his ass back. This then in turn makes his decision whether to go or to stay in San Francisco that bit more compelling. The two halves of the film are balanced right down to the casts. There are three key characters in both cities with Frank in the middle: Roman and his son Stef with O’Leary as the antagonist in Buffalo, and Frank’s sponsor Tom and girlfriend Laurel in San Francisco along with Bill Pullman relishing all the sleaziness he can wring out of Dave, the “fixer” who sets up Frank with an apartment and the funeral home gig on his arrival in town. Speaking of San Francisco, the extended middle section in the West Coast town is probably the most entertaining “recovering alcoholic” story I’ve ever seen. Initially hesitant, Frank soon gets fully involved in his recovery and takes advantage of the Anonymous part in order to be completely open about what he does for a living, to the mostly unfazed reactions of his fellow meeting attendees. Only Tom (Luke Wilson in typical deadpan mode) seems a bit unsure at first, but Frank is never judged for what he does. As I understand it, that’s part of the deal with AA. And then we have Laurel. Téa Leoni, who also produced the flick, is introduced while flirting with Frank as he prepares her recently deceased uncle for burial. You could say it’s love at first sight. Theirs is a refreshingly honest relationship. Frank never lies about his recovery or his job, and Laurel is not without her own issues; her chronic refusal to recognise the word “no” does leave her somewhat without boundaries. They make an engaging couple though, and Laurel’s headstrongness (is that a word?) contrasted with Frank’s more mild mannered personality neutralises any weirdness from the age gap.
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the pair behind the three recent Chronicles of Narnia movies as well as Captain America) is full of wit and covers some uncomfortable territory without being mawkish. The comedy is more of the snark variety than the laugh-a-minute gag fest. It is good to see the reality of overcoming addiction as well, insofar as can be shown in a 90-minute gangster comedy. For Frank, A.A. isn’t a magic bullet. He slips more than once before he gets properly on the wagon, and it is only after the Buffalo business is resolved that he can make a real committed go of it. As for John Dahl, this story is right in his wheelhouse: gangsters and addicts, both living life on the fringes of acceptable behaviour, both doing it with the sharpest of tongues. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw Red Rock West back in the mid-nineties, and it’s always good to see his name next to “Directed by”. If only he had made more than eight movies in the 23 years since his debut Kill Me Again, although he does have a healthy list of quality TV to his name as well (and The Vampire Diaries).
As much as I personally dislike the word quirky, it fits this movie. Not in a deliberately self-aware way, but it has an off-balance way of looking at people and the situations they find themselves in. For me, that’s always a good place to start a story. Also, this may be the closest John Dahl ever gets to a romantic comedy.