Forget everything that Cops has taught you—according to John Dahl’s You Kill Me, drinking and homicide actually don’t mix. At least not when you’re Frank Falenczyk, an alcoholic hit man who once prided himself on his murderly precision. When his Buffalo-based gangster family forces him to go to San Francisco and dry up, Frank resists, but he eventually takes the 12 steps to heart. Particularly the one about making amends: “I don’t regret killing them,” Frank tells his girlfriend of the victims he’s listing on paper. “Just killing them badly.” And so, the next of kin of the woman whose eye he sliced instead of her throat gets a $50 gift certificate to Macy’s.
The monster-with-a-sensitive-side premise has been done before, mined for laughs (Analyze This and That) or melodrama (The Sopranos). Here, the premise is spun as nearly intolerably cute. Ben Kingsley’s Frank isn’t a sexy beast—he’s a compact, well-dressed package of charming tics and few, funny words. He’s initially appalled by the AA meetings he attends, but he’s soon sharing ’n’ caring, and when he meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a—naturally—beautiful Californian whose tongue is as sharp as his knives, she wants to love him. But, darn it, she’s got boundary issues. They meet, by the way, in a funeral home: Frank was strong-armed into taking a temporary job as an embalmer, and one day he was working on Laurel’s stepfather when she brought in bowling shoes for the deceased to wear. Now that’s a story to tell your grandkids.
Thanks to a delicately woven, genre-crossing script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who, in a departure, also worked together on The Chronicles of Narnia) and the strength of its leads, You Kill Me keeps its potential wackiness in check. (Though the Polishness—and drunkenness—of Buffalonians is emphasized so heavily that the city, represented by Winnipeg, Manitoba, becomes a caricatured character itself.) Much of its humor is culled from Frank’s AA experiences, whether it’s his introduction to the process (his look of subtle alarm every time someone introduces himself and is quickly accosted with “Hi, [Blank]” is terrific), his blossoming candor (“The only way I’m going to get to [kill] again is to stop drinking”), or the members who share their stories (“You know, it’s a whole lot easier fucking girls you don’t like when you’re drunk”). The film doesn’t just poke fun, however: There’s a quite uncomfortable scene where a merry family at the funeral home, laughing the whole time, is trying to force a drink on Frank, as well as heartbreaking consequences whenever he does give in.
Kingsley is a font of dryness as Frank, making his character bug-eyed and uncomfortable in his own skin when he’s sober. His exquisite comic timing and expressiveness is impressively matched by Leoni, who on more than one occasion makes too-sly jokes work with great physical follow-through. (Also notable is Bill Pullman as a real-estate agent/babysitter, schlubby in an ill-fitting raincoat and bad haircut—he’s tasked with watching Frank but looks like he can barely keep it together himself.) And just when their scenes together start to get too lovey, the filmmakers know how to cut the sugar: The expected new-couple montage, for example, features shots of them practicing knife-wielding on a head-shaped watermelon.
You Kill Me doesn’t completely abandon its gangster roots, though, while it’s vacationing as a romantic comedy. There’s tension and violence as Frank’s family deals with a rival that the hit man had failed to whack because he was drunk; Dahl, who also balanced similar moods in The Last Seduction, switches between locations and plotlines smoothly. The only surprise as the pieces come together is that you’ll likely have enjoyed the movie more than you might have thought.