Killer Comedy Restores Rep of B-Movie Director

Running time 92 minutes
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by John Dahl
Starring Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson

John Dahl’s You Kill Me, from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, reaffirms Mr. Dahl’s distinctive role as the Val Lewton of B movies for our time. His career has spanned almost two decades, and featured such minor neo-noir classics as Kill Me Again (1989) and Red Rock West (1992), peaking with Linda Fiorentino as an all-time femme fatale in The Last Seduction (1994), stumbling a bit with the excessive gimmickry of Unforgettable (1996), regaining some lost ground with Rounders (1998), Joy Ride (2001) and The Great Raid (2005), and now reaching new heights with the suitably homicidally entitled You Kill Me.

The movie’s mob intrigues begin in Buffalo, which is already a comic concept, what with its perpetually wintry goombahs, embodied in Philip Baker Hall’s overcoated Roman, battling for their share of the icy turf coveted by an invading Irish mob led by Dennis Farina’s O’Leary. It is at this tense moment that Ben Kingsley makes a not-so-grand entrance as the local hit man Frank Falanczyk, who has been ordered by his boss to eliminate O’Leary at a designated time and place. The problem is that Frank has become such a compulsive drunk that he falls asleep in his car while waiting for O’Leary to appear. Instead of being rubbed out for botching his assignment, Frank is sent to San Francisco by his curiously paternalistic though angry employer to enroll in an Alcoholics Anonymous program, while working as an undertaker’s assistant. Only an actor capable of Mr. Kingsley’s steely-eyed seriousness could endure these grotesque plot gambits without at least inwardly cracking up and giving the show away.

Frank ultimately rises to his feet at the A.A. meeting and tells his fellow alcoholics, male and female, that his drinking has made it impossible for him to perform in his profession, which, he explains explicitly, consists of killing people for business reasons. Frank’s Clausewitzian candor about capitalism seems to strike his listeners as perfectly reasonable. After all, if drink diminishes one’s capacity for earning a living even by killing people, that’s awful.

This outrageous humor extends somewhat more gruesomely to Frank’s duties in the funeral parlor, but we have been conditioned by the popular cable television series Six Feet Under to accept graveyard jokes as part of the human comedy. Frank unexpectedly finds a romantic soulmate in one of the relatives of the deceased, Téa Leoni’s tough-minded broad, Laurel. Ms. Leoni possesses a distinctive brand of deadpan comedy skill that has been absent from the screen for too long a time, and her smoldering intensity recalls Ida Lupino’s (1914-1995) noirish roles at Warner’s in the 40’s. Indeed, she is even more impressive here than Ms. Fiorentino was in The Last Seduction, simply because Ms. Leoni’s Laurel also succeeds in being warmly sympathetic by leading Frank to demon-drink-free salvation without cramping his style as a hit man, which is perhaps the most hilarious conceit of all. Along with the splendid principals, Luke Wilson as Tom, Frank’s moral support at A.A., and Bill Pullman as Dave, the Buffalo mob’s contact in San Francisco, round out an extraordinarily accomplished ensemble. Not that anyone in the cast, including Mr. Kingsley and Ms. Leoni, will be up for Oscars. But then no one in a Val Lewton movie was ever considered for an Oscar, either.

Killer Comedy Restores Rep of B-Movie Director