Hard As He Can
Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) has had it. He may believe, at the start of You Kill Me, that he has a handle on whatever it is he’s feeling, but the film’s first shot tells you he does not: shoveling snow from his walkway on yet another wintry day in Buffalo, NY, he staggers, takes a glug from his vodka bottle, then tosses it into the snow, so it can chill until he shovels to it. He looks gnarly. In a moment, you see why: he’s handed another assignment, the murder of a rival gang leader. A hitman, Frank is instructed to ensure that O’Leary (Dennis Farina), in the usual parlance of such assignments, “doesn’t get on that train.”
Stoic and taciturn in a traditionally masculine way, Frank tries to play down his drinking, though it appears he’s been at it for some time. But when he passes out in his car at the train station, thus missing the hit on O’Leary, Frank’s uncle and employer, the mob boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall), well, that’s bad business. And so Roman sends him to “dry out” in the hinterlands, here (in a decidedly odd relation to Buffalo) San Francisco. Roman sets him up with a minder, Dave (Bill Pullman), and a routine-making day job in a funeral home, where he’s supposed to dress up corpses for grieving relatives to remember. (“I’m okay with the dead bodies,” he assures his new boss, the predictably wise black woman Doris [Alison Sealy-Smith].)
It’s here that Frank meets Laurel (Téa Leoni). Trading sardonic observations as he cleans up her stepfather’s corpse, they find they share a certain wry pessimism. While he’s largely unsocialized, having spent so much time alone, murdering people, and, lately, drinking, Frank does evince a weird charm. Laurel appears to be attracted to his straight talk, and he’s uneasily moved by her dark humor (as when she wonders about his recent girlfriends: “I suppose it’s hard to find real live ones in your line of work. I’ve heard of some people in your position making do”). If they seem an unlikely couple at first, within minutes you know they’ll be right for one another, Now he only has to tell her his secrets, and so live up to her belief that he is indeed honest. (At least he’s honest about the limits of dressing up corpses, the desires that such rituals only pretend to fulfill.)
He stages his confession in two steps: first he brings her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and then, leaving her to watch fro the audience full of his fellow alcoholics—including his low-key mentor Tom (Luke Wilson)—he steps to the podium and announces, “I kill people. It’s my job. I don’t feel much guilt about it.” His listeners appear to take the pronouncement in stride, including his desire to “get sober so I can get back to work.” Tom and Laurel talk it over, deciding that no one will likely tell on him, since, he is, after all, supposed to be “anonymous.”
As the film slips in and out of generic expectations—part romantic comedy, part mob thriller—Frank wonders about his place in the world. At first glance, he’s something of a generic hitman—grimly brusque and dreadfully efficient, yet also awkward in the company of civilians. Laurel appreciates both aspects, for a time, and is interested enough in Frank’s work to learn how to handle a knife (they practice on watermelons during a happy-couple montage that would be given over to walks in the park and pretty candlelit dinners in a straighter sort of romance). It helps that he’s embodied by Kingsley in his very intense, very intimidating, very bald mode. During a conversation at Tom’s workplace—he’s a toll taker on the Golden Gate Bridge—Frank dismisses a driver who’s been pestering them for endless seconds with a mere glare. It’s as if Sexy Beast‘s Don Logan has been resurrected for a sharp, harrowing instant.
But as cool and self-contained as Frank might be during these short moments, his own dissipation suggests that his version of masculinity is not so solid as it may have once seemed. He has a series of mini-revelations during AA sessions, his repeated expression of awe at other speakers’ raw admissions of fear, need, and lack of control hat are not so much comic as they are precise little excavations of self-understanding. He goes so far as to approach one woman who has bared her longtime misery: “Life for me,” he says, “has been pretty much a pain in the ass. I don’t like me either, but something in you had the courage to say enough you’re not the worst fat girl in the world.” She looks at him as if not quite sure whether he means to comfort or insult her. He’s got so little empathy that this effort seems Herculean.
At the same time, Frank is seeing that the way he and the guys do business isn’t so effective as before. When his associate Stef (Marcus Thomas) observes, “It’s like we don’t exist anymore,” Frank confirms with certainty: “We don’t.” Frank sees a way out, through Laurel, utterly passionate and imaginative and forgiving, as well as decidedly odd, as she confounds his routines and incarnates other options. But when Tom informs him, “An alcoholic’s God is a very forgiving God,” Frank begins to believe he can be changed, if not exactly redeemed.
Still, he’s in a business (not to mention a movie) that keeps pulling him back, represented in its most lowlife form by Dave. A scummy real estate agent when he’s not working off debts to Roman, Dave picks at Frank’s new sense of self-doubt—“You do what you’re told, Frank, you’re a victim, you let people fuck you”—and so drives him to act out in conventional ways. Like most genre pictures, the very stylish You Kill Me wants it multiple ways, using clichés to undermine them. But for all the cunning it shows off, it’s cleverest when Frank is pondering his own limits, brow furrowed, jaw set. He performs masculinity as hard as he can.