Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kill Me Again (1989)


Academically, film noir's dark, tangled roots as an art form sprout from the crushing insularly realized despair of the soul. Durable and perhaps everlasting as a kind of thorough examination of the fallen, its psychology expressively at one with the poeticism with which its ambivalently lurid tales of spiritual corruption and moral decay are rendered. It was in no small measure born out of the alienation and paranoia of a time period singed by the indignities of greater urbanism and anonymity—the suppression of the individual in the squalid sea of prodigiously peopled centers of drudgery. And yet the timbre of film noir did not die out; numerous directors have endeavored to take up the mantle of noir, to pay homage to the filmic works of the past while attempting to contribute modifications—often in the name of updating—to the classic template. It is with great hope when allowing “neo-noir” a chance to radiate in its own right that the substantial viscosity of this most trenchantly oneiric cinematic expression is not lost through epochal transfiguration.

Perhaps best distilled, particularly for the purposes of exploring John Dahl's 1989 entry, Kill Me Again, the perfect definition of film noir is that it resonantly reminds of real life: men go after money for women, while women go after men for money. Dahl's picture begins with a voluptuous seductress named Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, who was married to costar Val Kilmer at the time) who manipulates one man—a psychotic killer named Vince Miller (Michael Madsen in the kind of brutish and violent role for which he became well-known)—so she can find a new host to parasitically exhaust. What helps to distinguish this rewarming of noir staples is the subtext Dahl and his fellow screenwriter David W. Warfield do not merely whip up empty-vessel figurations in lieu of characters but rather deliver articles of welcome depth. The pacing of these character beat offerings allows the ninety-five minute film to find an intriguingly uncommon rhythm.

As the tale of crime, lust and betrayal commences, Fay and Vince are in Winnemucca, Nevada. They have been eyeing some easy money, and are now ripping off an outlet of the Nevada mob, rubbing out at least one gangster in the process. The amount stolen is nearly nine hundred thousand dollars. Vince realizes that the two should stay away from population centers. After a brief verbal and physical tussle over the woman's desire to go to Las Vegas, Vince finds himself prey to Fay's burning desire to live glamorously. After telling her that they can hide out together in Idaho at a rest stop off the freeway, he suffers a terrible blow to the back of the head. Fay has picked up a rock used as a restroom doorstop as her weapon, and in a bit of Freudian literalism has left her boyfriend holding his sexual organ in his hand as he is disabled by the immoral woman.

Val Kilmer plays Reno private investigator Jack Andrews. His wife having died months before the story begins in a freak car accident for which he blames himself (he swerved off the road when a deer appears on it out of nowhere), Jack is a broken shell of a man. He has recently become the quarry of an organization of loan sharks after having failed to pay them back. In deep for ten thousand dollars, Jack suffers a series of punishments. Two ruffians have pierced the single mirage-like sanctuary of Jack's seedy, darkly lit office. After refusing to feign loyalty, Jack is pressed against his desk and his right pinkie finger is snapped in half by one of the men.

Later, as every viewer has doubtless guessed, Fay and Jack's paths cross. Dahl literally encircles and highlights the unjust randomness associated with the vicissitudes of noir, as Fay picks Jack out of a group of options under the term “Investigator” in the Reno phone book. When she enters his office, he is immediately taken with Fay's almost blindingly radiant beauty. She asks for him to “kill [her],” so that her boyfriend, who she states is “not right in the head,” will not continually search for her. She is willing to pay ten thousand dollars for this operation to be undertaken (making it appear to everyone that she has been killed), half now, half when the job is finished. What makes the propositional scene sizzle, however, is the intensely sympathetic portal through which Dahl frames this would-be damsel in distress. After meeting reluctance with Jack, she tears up. Like the best femme fatales, she exhibits her most vulnerably feminine attributes, and entices the man's sense of chivalrous protectiveness. Thus having wily waxed weakly for his consumption, she is made all the more irresistible. Kilmer underplays the scene rather charmingly. His Jack knows he should not trust her, especially as he vocally notes that carrying five thousand dollars on her person is “a lot...” Nevertheless, he cannot fight off the temptation of saving a woman. Jack almost altogether succumbs to Fay at this exact moment, all the while half-convincing himself that he is accepting the task solely for the money.

In a perpetually gloaming dry Nevada desert as well as the streets of “The World's Biggest Little City,” Reno, all atmospherically shot by Dahl and his cinematographer Jacques Steyn, the plot unfolds with a relaxedly confident integrity in the surfeit of noir touchstones. The score by William Olvis is vaguely reminiscent of suspenseful noirs and detective movies, signposting the winding road of the tale. The scene in which Jack “kills” Fay is one laced with steamy eroticism. The very act of the “murder” is sensually played with as a kind of sexual act. Fay taunts and teases Jack on a motel room bed, a shadow of Venetian blinds slicing through her gorgeous face as she giggly leads the private investigator along.

Connatural to the genre, events do not go entirely according to plan. Before he can piece together just who the betrayer and who is the betrayed, Jack finds himself interrogated by an imposing policeman. Recounting the downward spiral from which Jack is suffering in the wake of his wife's death—several petty crimes and a week-long stint in jail for protecting a client—summarized in a provocatively written monologue. “You used to be a normal, upstanding citizen,” the policeman notes. It is this key description of the incremental transformation—the procession of the “normal, upstanding citizen,” the dupe of the noir, the dupe of life itself, falling into the unforgiving pit of what would in a perfect world truly be considered the abnormal, compelled to cross one line after another. The web of illegality finally proves too strongly weaved for most noir protagonists.

Unfortunately, however, Kill Me Again fails on the rather fundamental score of following through with its premise to the conclusion. The denouement is a withered, dissipated puddle of problematically prosaic cinematic choices, and finally something of a betrayal of the film's dark promise. The ending is tepid and limp, and though there are short, closing bursts of poisonous energy, the closing portion of the picture succumbs to tired predictability lacking the inherently tragic reckoning that must be the bitter resolution to such a tale of blisteringly perfidious emotions and motivations. The empirical summation of the film's traditional noir vestiges cannot be discounted, though the destination of Kill Me Again proves less a consummation of the twisted path on which Jack is doomed to travel. Some of Dahl's interests in noir—continued in Red Rock West (1992) and The Last Seduction (1994)—may be dismissed by some as merely superficial, not having resolutely followed the implications of the stories he tells. That criticism notwithstanding, Dahl's Kill Me Again is largely an overlooked gem with roundly probed psychological subtexts. Dahl's late '80s color creation stands as a film molded by a palpable love for the old dark movies, those shot in crisply stark black-and-white, which still relentlessly haunt.

16 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

A great review Alexander that certainly invites my interest in this film, and with a worthy prologue on film noir. Your description of noir as "in no small measure born out of the alienation and paranoia of a time period singed by the indignities of greater urbanism and anonymity" is not only elegant but spot-on.

Moses Hernandez said...

Definitely a great review. You're on a roll, Alexander. This movie isn't perfect but then most movies aren't. I wouldn't mind seeing it again someday. A sexy and lurid modern noir.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Tony, and of course that means a great deal coming from you especially.

Alexander Coleman said...

And thank you very much as well, Moses. You are right about there being comparatively few in the way of "perfect" movies. This picture has some undeniable charms.

Sam Juliano said...

I regret to say I have not yet seen this film, which puts me at a disadvantage. But this is not the first time you have snared me Alexander, and it won't be the last. Today is not my day, as Tony D'Ambra also has posted a film noir I haven't seen, but I assure you I will be back shortly with an an extended comment on your review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, the satisfaction of stumping Sam Juliano! Haha. I look forward to your upcoming comment.

Sam Juliano said...

I do know Mr. Dahl's work Alexander, as you noted late in your review with the titles THE LAST SEDUCTION and RED ROCK WEST. I particularly liked the former, but I realize none of his work is perfect, including that one.
The beginning of the review, as Tony rightly acknowledges, offers a most cogent lead-in of a consideration of film noir as an art form, one where "men go after money for women" and "women go after men for money." And yet another brutal and violent turn by Michael Madsden? That man boiled by blood with the sadistic role he played in Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS, a film you know well. But you further note that the film contains "crime," "lust" and "betrayal," further elements in the noirsphere. Of course, the most fascinating subtext here I would think, would be the "Freudian literalism" you speak of, but falling short of seeing the film to this point, I can't offer any clarification.
What does intrigue of course is the "atmospherically shot" cinematography by Dahl and cameraman Jacques Steyn in "The World's Biggest Little City." And you apparently are imprssed with William Olvis' score as well.
Your typically observant and exhaustive review also mentions that Fay'S killing is "laced with steamy eroticism" and the "act of the murder in a sensual vein is "played with as a kind of sexual act."
It is noted though, that you had major issues with teh film as you called the ending "tepid and limp." But all in all, you seemed reasonably impressed, and your review again is committed towards a thorough consideration of this film, which I eventually would like to see.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the thorough response, Sam, despite your limitations from not having seen the film in question. And thank you again for the very kind words.

Kill Me Again is not a perfect film, but it is an interesting one, and better than the average "modern" noir in my opinion. It is worth seeking out, and these thoughts were actually based from a second viewing of it for me, so its flaws do not negate the pleasures of a revisitation. (Though the ending was significantly worse the second go around.)

And yes, Michael Madsen was born to play sadistic, fiendish heavies. In fact, he has a scene in this film that actually points to the kind of senseless acts of violence in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

Thanks again.

mister e said...

4 or 5 stars for kill===lol barn stormer ninkompoops if you wil

barny rapest said...

lots of credit or blame again gose for andrew and his radiant analysis of this scientific of all creature comforts. once again wonerfuls for you

NoirishCity.... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher said...

Yeah, this is a sweet mvoie. Love the chemistry between Kilmer and Kilmer. Damn she was hot as hell here.

Christopher said...

Great review. I agree that more then most newer film noirs this one holds onto most of the integral parts of the genre.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher, and thank you, Dark City Dame. I am glad to hear you agree with the worth of seeing Kill Me Again more than once. It goes beyond the film's noirish integument--though that certainly does not hurt any.

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Anonymous said...

Speaking of neo-noirs... Will you share your thoughts on what I consider one of the best since "Body Heat" - "The Last Seduction."

Looking forward and thanks.

Cordially,
b