Buffalo blues
‘You Kill Me’ fuses romance, comedy and noir

by Judith Reynolds

What could be worse than a Buffalo, N.Y., winter? I should know. I used to live in “the rust belt.” Winters in Upstate New York are long, gray and soggy. Early, heavy snow lingers for months. You dig yourself and your car out daily, longing for spring.

John Dahl’s new film, “You Kill Me,” begins in the midst of a Buffalo winter. It’s a hybrid – a romantic comedy wrapped around a thriller. Thanks to a smart screenplay and solid performances by a fortress of top flight actors, fluff and hard darkness work together. “You Kill Me” is one of those lethal snowballs with a stone in the center. Unfortunately, the Abbey Theatre booked it only for a week.

The film opens as Frank Falenczyk (Sir Ben Kingsley) surfaces from a well-marinated alcoholic haze to clear his sidewalk. He tosses a bottle of vodka a few feet ahead then shovels some snow until he reaches the curb. That he performs this fruitless dance to jaunty background music – a tango – gives you a clue to the tone of the film.

Digging out is what Frank does throughout. A hit man for the Polish mob, Frank is also digging out from a downward slide into a lonely, dead-end life.

To complicate matters, his mob is being squeezed by a new coalition of the willing, the Irish and Chinese. The Poles order a hit on O’Leary (Dennis Farina), the Irish boss. In a continuation of his alcoholic daze, Frank fails. But because he is the nephew of crime-boss Roman Falenczyk (Philip Baker Hall), Frank isn’t dumped into Lake Erie, he’s sent to San Francisco for rehab.

Ben Kingsley in a scene from his new dark comedy, 'You Kill Me.'

The film then shifts back and forth between the two locations. Reluctantly, Frank embarks on a California recovery via AA meetings, a small apartment, a part-time job at a funeral home, and a chance encounter with a woman who is as frank about life as, well, Frank. Lauren (Téa Leoni) meets him where he works preparing corpses for public viewing. We know little about Lauren’s back-story (or Frank’s for that matter), and it doesn’t matter. Lauren and Frank recognize each other as lonely souls who tell the truth. The development of their bond parallels the disintegrating mob bonds back in Buffalo. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely skillfully alternate the two worlds in a series of surprising events.

On the surface, the plot is improbable. And yet it is believable, thanks largely to a solid structure and focused actors. When Frank is not drinking, Kingsley coils up and becomes frighteningly contained – communicating menace with hard eyes and a perfectly still body. When Frank drinks, he’s unpredictable – alternately a party guy, a dupe and an explosive killer. In contrast, Lauren possesses an air of experience wrought by the habit of candor and boredom. Her manner, which Leoni delivers with simplicity and resigned affection, appeals to Frank. They are an unlikely pair, but they click.

An outer ring of characters support the two central figures in each location. In San Francisco, Dave (Bill Pullman) is Frank’s mob watchdog and Realtor who triggers a tense scene at City Hall; Tom (Luke Wilson) becomes Frank’s AA sponsor; Doris (Alison Sealy-Smith) reluctantly agrees to be Frank’s colleague at the funeral home. Her low-key manner introduces some interesting gallows-humor.

In Buffalo, a Dickensian underworld shifts between the Poles and the Irish, with a brief glimpse of Chinese mobsters. O’Leary (Farina) delivers a smilingly cold crime boss, a counterpart to Frank’s Uncle Roman. Steph (Marcus Thomas) is Frank’s buddy who triggered rehab to save him. They have a falling out, but Steph ends up needing Frank’s help – more plot complications.

Director Dahl (“Rounders” and “The Last Seduction”) quickly establishes key characters and plot elements. A third of the way through, Leoni’s character casually enters the story. By then you understand why Frank would be attracted to her. Through parallel scenes, sharp transitions and simple quick-cutting, Dahl also sets up the tension between Buffalo and San Francisco.

From the beginning, Marcelo Zarvos’s musical score creates a light, ironic tone. The opening tune is a dead give away that “Kill” will be some kind of comedy. Zarvos chooses old world melodies, scored for accordion, guitar and violin, as if they were played by a village band on the south side of Buffalo or the outskirts of Krakow. Interspersed with the tantalizing dances, you’ll hear pop songs like “Just a Day’s Mistake” and the closing, “If You Know Love,” sung by Molly Johnson. For all the hardness at the heart of this snowball, you wonder how and if the director just might pull off a feel-good ending. •