You Kill Me (2007)

While he's largely unsocialized, having spent so much time alone, murdering people, and, lately, drinking, Frank does evince a weird charm.

You Kill Me

Director: John Dahl
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman, Dennis Farina, Philip Baker Hall
Distributor: Ifc
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-06-22 (Limited release)

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.