The first thing to say about You Kill Me is to give props to Ben Kingsley, if for no other reason than my fear that he will break my kneecaps if I don’t. Even after his terrifying turn in Sexy Beast, it’s still a surprise to see it is perfectly natural for him to take the role of Frank, an almost superhumanly talented mob assassin. For a man of a certain age who once played Ghandi, he can certainly act up some serious physical menace. But You Kill Me gives him a chance to enrich this character type instead of merely repeat it. In Sexy Beast, he was funny because he was so very extremely menacing. Here, his character is menacing and funny.
You Kill Me is a bicoastal film, literally illustrating Frank’s different worlds by setting the action in two different cities. In Buffalo, You Kill Me shares with The Sopranos a look into the operations of modern-day gangsters. Their lives are somewhat less exciting than the fantasy lucrative lifestyle seen in The Godfather and Scarface, but still sharply divided by cultural heritage and identity. Frank may seem to be a pathetic figure, but when sober, he is the sole factor keeping his small-time Polish crime family in business.
The problem is, he is sober less and less when the story opens, and his family must fix him in order to survive. So Frank is ordered from Buffalo to San Francisco to dry out, leaving behind his family (both by blood and criminal association) and yet quickly forging a new one: Dave (Bill Pullman), a shady real-estate dealer no better than a gangster himself; Tom (Luke Wilson), a gay fellow alcoholic; and implausible love interest Laurel (Téa Leoni, also an executive producer).
The problem with Laurel is not only the creepy age differential (a long-standing Hollywood pox from which it seems even indies aren’t immune), but with Laurel’s underdeveloped character. What little we learn of her history (a recently deceased, unloved stepfather) seems insufficient to explain what makes her so lonely and desperate that she would attach herself to possibly the most unstable and unreliable person in the world. What happened to her to make her so blasé and amoral that she clings so fervently to Frank and cross the country to risk her life for him?