You Kill Me (2007): John Dahl’s Hit-Man Comedy

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A modest hit-man comedy that provides director John Dahl with one of his strongest entries in recent years, You Kill Me may be a one-joke premise, but its a good one. Playing a very different assassin from the one he did in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (which won him an Oscar-nomination), Ben Kingsley locates the humor and empathy in an alcoholic killer who finds love while tackling addiction.

Frank (Kingsley) is an accomplished hit man for the Polish mob in Buffalo. However, his frequent drinking is starting to interfere with his work, never more critically than when he fails to kill OLeary (Dennis Farina), the kingpin of Buffalos competing Irish mob. Furious, Polish mob boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall) sends Frank far away to San Francisco to get sober. Frank doesnt like the relocation but he has no choice in the matter.

After moving to the City by the Bay, Frank gets hooked up with an inconspicuous job at a mortuary and begrudgingly begins attending AA meetings. He finds a sponsor in Tom (Luke Wilson), an affable gay man who shows Frank a compassionate form of tough love in order to encourage him to stop drinking.

However, Franks road to recovery only starts in earnest once he meets Laurel (Tea Leoni), who is attending her stepfathers funeral at the mortuary. Keeping his real vocation secret, he begin dating her, but his constant battle with booze, not to mention a burgeoning turf war back in Buffalo, threaten to dampen the romance.

With its mixture of black comedy and crime drama, You Kill Me sees John Dahl return to the realm of his previous quirky thrillers of the 1990s, such as The Last Seduction and Red Rock West. While You Kill Me doesnt have the wonderfully acidic tone of those two terrific noirs, the new film shows Dahl regaining his form after several lackluster studio projects (“The Joy Ride”) and a misbegotten World War II picture (The Great Raid).

In its first half, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely subverts mob-movie conventions by demonstrating how thoroughly unglamorous the life of a Buffalo gangster is, emphasizing the miserable winters, drab skies, and crummy nightlife. Rather than seeming dangerous or thrilling, this community of hoodlums treat their criminal pursuits like a mundane blue-collar factory job, which are passed down from generation to generation.

When Frank goes to San Francisco and attends AA meetings, You Kill Me risks comparisons to The Sopranos use of therapy as a means to humanize a monster. But the film sidesteps the thematic similarity by treating Franks addiction with compassionate, leavening humor instead of delving into deep psychological insights. Dahl and his screenwriters approach Franks dependence seriously, but the director maintains a breezy tone to keep the scripts wobbly construction from collapsing.

Unlike his flamboyantly evil murderer from Sexy Beast, Kingsleys Frank is a smaller-than-life figure beaten down by his job, his drinking, and his lack of any sort of real human affection. Kingsley makes Frank weary, sympathetic, and mordantly funny without trying to turn him into an adorable puppy dog; the steely-eyed glint of a killer emerges often enough to remind us that he is a man to fear, no matter how vulnerable he appears.

You Kill Me succeeds better in setting up the storys comedic fish-out-of-water elements than it does in fully satisfying those expectations, which helps explain why the film suffers as it builds to its conclusion. Once Laurel and Tom discover what Frank does for a living, Dahl nicely underplays their surprisingly nonchalant acceptance of his disturbing profession.

Disappointingly, despite some wry moments concerning Laurels realization that a cold-blooded killer could be her perfect mate, You Kill Me doesn’t develop its premise much beyond the initial punchline. As a result, the films second half loses its potentially comic momentum. When the finale arrives, and Frank returns home to take on the Irish mob, Laurels complicity in his hit-man activities is too ludicrous and not funny enough to redeem its implausibility.

As with Kingsley, the other actors deliver smart, subdued performances. Tea Leoni does great work as a jaded urban sophisticate who picks bad romantic partners, but her transformation into an amateur assassin is less convincing. Playing comfortably within their dramatic range, Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall are believable mob bosses, although neither role offers many new beats to pursue. Luke Wilson makes for an ideal buddy and comic foil for Kingsley.

You Kill Me may be a minor confection, but the charm of its cast makes the journey worthwhile.

Credits

Running time: 92 minutes

Director: John Dahl
Production companies: Code Entertainment, Echo Lake Productions, Bipolar Pictures
US distribution: IFC Films
Producers: Al Corley, Burt Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso, Carol Baum, Mike Marcus, Zvi Howard Rosenman
Executive producers: Tea Leoni, Jonathan Dana
Co-producer: Kim Olsen
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cinematography: Jeffrey Jur
Editor: Scott Chestnut
Production design: John Dondertman
Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Cast

Frank (Ben Kingsley)
Laurel (Tea Leoni)
Tom (Luke Wilson)
O’Leary (Dennis Farina)
Roman (Philip Baker Hall)
Dave (Bill Pullman)
Stef (Marcus Thomas)