Potential viewers of You Kill Me could be excused for thinking that the film’s premise is, at the least, a little worn around the edges. After seven seasons of The Sopranos, not to mention both the popular, Analyze This (1999), and the cultish, Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), films, the logline, “mobster/hardened criminal seeks therapy for help with personal demons,” wouldn’t seem to have much mileage left in it. That would, however, be a hasty conclusion.
If You Kill Me falls short of reinventing its underlying conceit, it nonetheless locates a fresh perspective on its central story. Even without its novel take on a familiar narrative trope, the film is worth watching for its high level of craft, particularly from the actors and Director of Photography, Jeff Jur.
The criminal in this case is Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a hit man for a Polish crime family in Buffalo. Frank is also an alcoholic. He is given the task of killing Irish crime boss Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina) before he can get on a train to New York, where he plans to meet Chinese investors. With the Chinese money O’Leary and his gang hope to squeeze the Poles out of Buffalo. Having spent the day and night drinking, Frank falls asleep while waiting for O’Leary to show up at the train station and misses the hit. The rest of the family, led by Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall), holds an intervention. Frank is packed off to San Francisco where, under the watchful eye of Dave (Bill Pullman), he gets a job at a funeral home and starts attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. More importantly, he meets Tom (Luke Wilson), his eventual sponsor, and Laurel Pearson (Téa Leoni), two people who help him to reconnect with others, a favor he returns in the case of Laurel.
Placing Frank in AA is where writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely open a new window onto the criminal-in-therapy premise, an opening that starts with the intervention in Buffalo. In contrast to Tony Soprano’s unsupportive milieu, Frank is practically doted on by heir apparent Stef (Markus Thomas). The family wants Frank to get help, even against his wishes. Part of this is practical, they need him healthy for business, but it also appears to be personal, particularly against the backdrop of the failed hit and O’Leary’s impending power grab.
In contrast to Tony Soprano’s or Martin Blank’s therapy, which seem only to intensify those characters’ senses of alienation, Frank’s attendance at AA meetings is part of his resocialization. Soon, he begins to seek human company outside of work and family. At the same time, as Frank wryly notes, the “anonymous” part of AA is a license to talk about his life, and what he does, openly and in mixed company. AA is also more rooted in self-help than is individual psychiatric treatment. Whereas Tony Soprano and Martin Blank always have their therapists, or their drugs, to blame for any perceived lack of progress, AA places responsibility for improvement on the addict and his or her willingness to accept the twelve steps. This active work is another force that gives impetus to Frank’s change during the course of the narrative.
Kingsley deftly plays Frank as a battered, isolated soul, albeit one seemingly comfortable enough with his life before the intervention. His conversion to the twelve steps unfolds subtly, a quality that undoubtedly reflects Markus and McFeely’s script and John Dahl’s direction as well as Kingsley’s approach to Frank. There’s no epiphany, just little clues (watch how the contents of his grocery bags change, for example). Director of Photography Jur makes selective use of rack focus to bring the audience briefly into Frank’s point-of-view on the world. These little moments signal what Frank is musing on at particular stages of his “recovery”. That Frank still has a soul to be battered and revived makes this character a different sort of criminal type than Sexy Beast‘s (2000) Don Logan, another of Kingsley’s well-turned, but less than noble, characters.
Leoni’s Laurel makes a nice match for Frank. Neither a criminal nor an addict, she does have “boundary” issues, she is nonetheless a hardened person. Like Frank, when we meet her, she seems more or less accommodated to being alone, but not quite. They meet over the corpse of her stepfather as she makes with the dark humor and he plays along. Frank slowly reveals details about himself, leading with the alcoholism rather than the killing. When he finally lets her know what he does for a living he does so in front of the entire AA group. Leoni’s work here is impeccable film acting. All of the emotions and reactions running through Laurel’s head are shown through slight shifts in posture and in facial expression. Most wonderfully, she seems just as curious and surprised by the reactions of those around her as she is by Frank’s revelations.
The key supporting parts are well cast and nicely acted. Indeed without the unusually desperate and vulnerable Philip Baker Hall, the schmoe-y Thomas Marcus as Stef, and the reliable Dennis Farina, the b-story in Buffalo would no doubt weigh the film down as an unnecessary complication. On first viewing the cuts back to the western New York gang war seemed just about right; on second viewing, and, at home, they seemed more superfluous, but still well played. Just as Baker Hall plays against type, so too does Bill Pullman as mean prick Dave.
You Kill Me is shot in cool tones, which befits its emotionally restrained leads. In direct or bright light, the image is pushed almost to the point of blowing out, as if to underscore the extent to which the characters have lived their lives out of sight from the rest of the world. Jur’s photography is an integral part of the narrative, establishing an ideal mood for the film’s skilled ensemble.
While the film’s apparent familiarity is a superficial flaw, and its, arguably, take-it-or-leave-it secondary story is a minor weakness, You Kill Me’s biggest problem is that Frank’s story is one that is likely impossible to end without questions being raised about credibility or necessity. As it is, the broadly satisfying close selected by the filmmakers is probably the right choice for the audience, if not entirely for the narrative or the characters.
The DVD includes a “Before and After Visual Effects Comparison,” a “Behind the Scenes” feature, a theatrical trailer, and a commentary track from Dahl, Markus, and McFeely. Aside from some graininess in very low light shots, the digital transfer looks good and does the photography justice.
The visual effects extra is interesting if for no other reason than You Kill Me doesn’t seem like a movie heavy on the CGI (turns out that making Winnipeg in spring look like Buffalo in winter takes some work). However, the production values are very poor, particularly the sound, which alternates between tinny interview clips and overly loud electronic music. The “Behind the Scenes” feature is an IFC produced promo for the theatrical release. Its primary virtue is that it shows the basic intelligence of the film’s makers, but other than that it presents a summary of the movie and a kind of hype that seems hardly necessary given that most people are going to watch it after having seen the film. As good as they are together, will being told that Ben Kingsley has always wanted to work with Téa Leoni really enhance anyone’s appreciation of the movie, assuming you believe the claim in the first place?
The commentary track is quite substantive, and provides interesting back-story regarding how the film came to be produced, how the script evolved during shooting, how locations were chosen, and so forth. It is mercifully free of gossip and exclamations as to “how wonderful x and y” were. If you’re interested in learning about the film, skip the “Behind the Scenes” feature and switch on the commentary.
Months after its release into theaters, You Kill Me remains one of the year’s most enjoyable films. That remains the best reason to buy or rent the DVD.