Hard drinking hit-man, Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) hits rock bottom after his latest booze snooze botches a job and puts the family business in jeopardy. Eager for Frank to kick the booze and clean up his act, his mobster uncle (Philip Baker Hall) sends him to San Francisco. Here, devious Dave (Bill Pullman) snags him an apartment, a new job as a mortician, and a twelve-step AA program. Resistant to the meetings at first, Frank gradually befriends Tom (Luke Wilson), who becomes his sponsor, and later on finds romance with the prickly, Lauren (Tèa Leoni). But there is trouble brewing back in Buffalo, compelling Frank to abandon Lauren and fly home to set things right.
Ever since the vogue for neo-noir died out with the nineties, John Dahl (The Last Seduction (1994) has struggled to find material to match his jaundiced eye. Rounders (1998) and Joy Ride (2001) were failures, but the darkly comic You Kill Me fits him like a second skin. The premise seems self-consciously quirky, but the screenplay - written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Marais, whose last work was The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005), of all things - has a marvellously droll wit reminiscent of French comedies like Wild Target (1993).
Being low-key and meditative means the film might not be to all tastes, yet there are neat quirks (the gangsters - who seem to genuinely care for Frank’s wellbeing - stage the mob equivalent of an intervention) and nice observations (Frank’s AA confession that he’s a killer, goes down like any other sob story). Executive producer/co-star Tèa Leoni shares great chemistry with Ben Kingsley, buoying our interest in the sparky relationship between taciturn, but vulnerable Frank and caring, but hard-edged Lauren (“Must be hard to meet living women”, she tells mortician Frank. “I’ve heard some men in your profession… make do”). Frequent cutaways to the turf war brewing between Frank’s family and Irish mobsters, led by perennial mob boss-on-the-make Dennis Farina, hobble the central narrative but join the dots towards a satisfactory payoff.
Kingsley struggles with the accent, but mostly nails the nervous tics and shifty demeanour of a man who goes from providing corpses to beautifying them. “I don’t regret killing them, just killing them badly”, remarks Frank at one point. Which makes him harder to empathise with than say, John Cusack’s twistedly-moral assassin in Grosse Point Blank (1997). However, Kingsley sells us on Frank’s struggles to hang onto his sobriety. Especially during an Irish wake which ends with him hilariously dumped on the street, after a randy old woman claims he made pass at her. There’s compelling character work from Bill Pullman, atypically cast as an odious creep, and Luke Wilson as the warm, wise Tom - to whom Frank leaves his gun (“Next time I shoot someone, I’ll think of you”).