A Polish, alcoholic hit man walks into a bar. Have you heard this one? The name’s Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), and he’s an important player in Buffalo’s resident snow-removal/racketeering concern—not just because he’s the nephew of the boss (Philip Baker Hall), but because everybody knows Frank’s the go-to guy for getting dirty work done. Or, anyway, he used to be. Nowadays, you give him any real responsibility—for taking out a rival boss (Dennis Farina) who’s muscled in on family territory, say—and Frank just gets sauced and sleeps right through it. So off he goes, at the family’s emphatic request, to dry out in San Francisco.
Seems a little far to travel for that purpose, but never mind. His contact there is an oily, burned-out real-estate broker (Bill Pullman), who sets him up with a job as an undertaker’s assistant. Seems a little pat and peculiar, but never mind. Now all Frank gets to hit are AA meetings, if at first grudgingly. “I didn’t really know I was an alcoholic until recently,” he tells his group. “I’m from Buffalo. Drinking’s a pretty obvious thing to do there.” He takes on an even-keeled young gay man (Luke Wilson) as a sponsor, because you gotta have somebody, right? He takes it one day at a time. Soon enough, Frank finds himself embalming the stepfather of an attractive if brusque and perhaps necessarily single saleswoman (Téa Leoni), who might be a bit like him: wised-up and wound-up, with her expectations wound down. Mutually pessimistic but fortified by guile, the two begin dating. Seems a little—well, here’s what the movie wants you to want to know: Can it ever work between them?
On its face, director John Dahl’s sly and slender little film, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, could come off as almost desperately derivative. How can it not appear beholden to both The Sopranos and Six Feet Under at once—not to mention the now ho-hum hit-man dramadies of yester-decade, like Grosse Point Blank? But any movie that takes stifled self-congratulation for its milieu can’t sustain such comparisons for long, and You Kill Me moots them pretty convincingly, by not wanting too much to be liked. Dahl exudes such a casual control; his lightness of touch reads as a concern for good form, like knowing how to squeeze a trigger instead of pulling it.
Besides, as far as borrowing is concerned, You Kill Me reaches much further back into film history, drawing lessons from the unsentimental mixture of screwball and noir favored (and, indeed, perfected) by Billy Wilder. True, to explicitly invoke the maestro doesn’t do Dahl much of a favor—by comparison, his relative lack of worldly imagination seems at times downright urgent—but many points may be scored for good taste and patient sophistication.
Anyway, as the stakes rise for his beleaguered syndicate back in the rust belt, Frank gets absorbed in his new game—flirting, feinting, figuring out what to declare. This is designed to drive the plot toward culmination, but mostly it’s just fun to watch: The chemistry isn’t entirely natural, but the performances are strong—Kingsley being Kingsley, of course, and Leoni an apt match for his powerful, minimalist precision. She’s the sort of deadpan-comedic femme fatale we didn’t realize we’ve missed from movies lately. Everybody else is good, too.
With his support system in place, Frank eventually decides that he’s good at his job, and he misses it—but, as he tells his fellow friends of Bill in a particularly confessional moment, “the only way I’m ever going to get to do it again is if I stop drinking. Forever.”
The blackest of the blackly comedic ideas here is not the notion of a low-burning mob war over who gets to plow the streets of Buffalo, nor that the best prospective life-mate for a laid-off trigger man should be a rapacious saleswoman of TV-commercial air time. It’s that coy suggestion that the life-affirming pieties of AA might be used to enable the willful wasting of life.
So maybe it had to be San Francisco. Not, after all, because of the city’s longstanding noir pedigree, but because Frank needed an AA meeting in which the people are just ridiculously non-judgmental—so much so that they’ll gladly ply even a hardened killer with bland acceptance and the platitudes of recovery. This might sound glib, and sometimes it is. The question you need to ask yourself is: Does that seal or break the deal?