Review: You Kill Me

Hit man’s life changes after he enters rehab. Sharp black comedy with a surprisingly uplifting message.

Anchored by a magnetic performance by Ben Kingsley, You Kill Me addresses the question of whether hit men deserve compassion. Played largely for laughs but with a discomfiting edge, the movie marks a stunning return to form for director John Dahl, a film noir specialist who has been mired recently in big-budget Hollywood projects. A niche item on every level, You Kill Me needs good word of mouth to find the audience it deserves.

Dahl and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen Feely (The Chronicles of Narnia) demand a lot from viewers. Kingsley’s Frank Falenczyk is not only an emotionless assassin, he’s also a classic alcoholic, one whose blackouts and hangovers are starting to affect his work. When Frank botches an assignment to kill O’Leary (Dennis Farina), a mobster, he endangers the life of his uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), head of Buffalo’s increasingly punchless Polish Mafia. Roman orders Frank off to San Francisco to straighten out.

Cousin Dave (a dead-on and merciless Bill Pullman), a realtor, finds Frank an apartment and monitors his attendance at AA meetings. He also gets him a job as a mortician’s assistant, in a way a natural progression from Frank’s original profession. Frank’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take up a large portion of You Kill Me, and they are written and directed with a combination of savage mimicry and genuine compassion that is thrilling to watch. Luke Wilson shows up as a homosexual toll booth clerk and AA sponsor, one of the most sensible and grounded characters in a story with a remarkably wide-ranging canvas.

Frank also meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a TV sales wiz with “boundary issues” who enters into a relationship that is marked by challenging setbacks and revelations. Leoni rarely gets the chance to play a character as complex as this, and her deadpan style is a strong complement to Kingsley. His Frank occasionally falls off the wagon, leading to drunk scenes that are simultaneously funny and chilling, but that never shy away from acknowledging the emotional toll of alcoholism.

In the same way, the Irish-Polish gang war in Buffalo can veer from hilarious to brutal in a split-second. (Dahl stages one shoot-out with a precision and economy that is breathtaking.) Long-time film heavies Farina and Hall enter fully into the spirit of the story, finding fresh angles for their characters. Like the rest of the cast, they play their roles straight, resisting the temptation to punch up their laughs. Kingsley does a typically outstanding job, finding something to value in a despicable character, earning sympathy by rejecting it, and nonchalantly nailing a Polish Buffalo background. (The actor’s Bipolar Productions helped package the project.)

Comedies about killers, like Analyze This, almost always force some queasy rationalization for the mayhem inherent to the profession. You Kill Me occasionally crosses that moral line, but Dahl’s focused style usually finds the right balance between right and wrong, between humor and cruelty. In fact, the entire film is like a gigantic balancing act, and if you are willing to believe that a hit man can find redemption, you may find You Kill Me one of the most stimulating films of the year.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson, Dennis Farina, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Pullman, Marcus Thomas, Scott Heindl, Alison Sealy-Smith, Aron Tager, Jayne Eastwood.

Credits: Directed by John Dahl. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Produced by Al Corley, Bert Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso, Carol Baum, Mike Marcus, Zvi Howard Rosenman. Executive producers: Téa Leoni, Jonathan Dana. Director of Photography: Jeffrey Jur. Edited by Scott Chestnut. Production designer: John Dondertman. Costume designer: Linda Madden. Music: Marcelo Zarvos. Music supervisor: John Bissell. Sound: Louis Marion, John Johnson. Co-producer: Kim Olsen. A Code Entertainment, Baum, Echo Lake, Rosenman, and Bipolar production.

IFC Films/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/93 Mins./Rated R

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