The opening sequence of John Dahl’s new black comedy You Kill Me begins with a sunny winter’s morning in Buffalo. Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) opens the front door to his house realizing he has to shovel away the several inches of snow that have accumulated overnight. He does so by tossing a vodka bottle into a snow mound several feet away from him, clearing a path to it, taking a large swig from the frosty contents, and repeat the entire process.
I mention this opening, because it’s one of the best expositions of alcoholism I’ve seen in the movies in years and gives you a sample of just how good the writing of this brilliant new comedy is. In a year which I’ve already seen my share of preposterous plots, this one actually works, and not only is it sharp and hilarious at times, it also has its share of unexpected sadness and tension.
In a sort of variation of his famous intimidating character of Sexy Beast, Kingsley plays the hired hitman of an ever-dwindling Polish mob in Buffalo. Failing in his assignment to whack the head of the local Irish mob (Dennis Farina) due to his alcoholism, Frank is sent off to hide in San Francisco, dry out, and hopefully be of some use later. He gets an AA sponsor (Luke Wilson) and a job at a funeral parlor through which he meets Laurel, a woman who’s seen her own share of life’s woes.
In the wrong hands this sort of comedy could have been a disaster, but Dahl puts together a seamless cast to match the great screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. This material has to be played perfectly to work and he’s assembled some terrific talent: Kingsley (great as always), Wilson, Farina, Phillip Baker Hall as the ever-suffering head of the Polish mob, Bill Pullman as a scumbag sent to keep an eye on Frank, and, in a wonderful surprise, Tea Leoni who has some fantastic moments here. I really would not be surprised to see her name on an Oscar nominee list next year, she’s that impressive.
You Kill Me works on a number of different levels: as a romance, tense crime drama, revenge picture, and, strangely enough, as a sort of twisted inspirational story, though certainly one you aren’t going to find on the Pax Channel. It presents a great sense of comic irony where Frank’s redemption may not necessarily include salvation.