Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
A good crime comedy can leave you feeling a little dirty, but oddly satisfied. It takes a certain temperament to laugh at the dark humor inherent in the genre. Sensible people often know they probably shouldn’t laugh at those moments, but the absurdity of the way they are presented coax the laughs out almost uncontrollably. Fans of the Coens’ films like Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, and the Oscar-winning Fargo will see glimmers of those films in director Nicol Paone’s new film The Kill Room. While it never gets to the level of those Coen films, there is enough of that DNA in it that fans will find something to enjoy.
Uma Thurman plays Patrice, an owner of an art gallery that isn’t making much money. Samuel L. Jackson plays Gordon Davis, an owner of a Jewish bakery, though that’s a front he uses for organizing hits for the mob with his partner Reggie a.k.a "The Bag Man” (Joe Manganiello), who needs a new way to launder their dirty money. Patrice is introduced to Gordon via her drug dealer (Matthew Maher). An arrangement is made where Reggie will make “art” and Patrice will sell it, giving them all a nice cut of the sale. However, when Reggie’s first piece sells for a notable price, it sets the art world abuzz, drawing unwanted attention to the hitman and his underworld buyers.
Thurman, Jackson, and Manganiello are definitely having a lot of fun making this movie. Their chemistry and performances make the film much more fun than it would have been otherwise. Thurman’s character especially feels underwritten at times, and the emotional stakes of her character aren’t as developed as they need to be to get the audience fully invested, but her performance helps fill in the gaps in the writing.
Manganiello's character opens the film with a somewhat cliche shot of a plastic bag floating in the wind, a la American Beauty, before showing one stuck on a storm grate he walks past. The camera tracks him as he enters a bodega. He demands a refund for bad coffee and an argument with the clerk, but it’s really just a rouse to find out if there is a security camera or not. This leads to the first kill we see, featuring a plastic bag paying off that opening cliche unexpectedly. The scene is a solid primer for what the film will be, as the scuff marks left by the first victim's shoes cross-fades into a piece of art on display at Patrice’s gallery. Audiences should know immediately if they’re on board for this particular ride.
The weakness of the film seems to mostly stem from the script. Apart from the characters not getting enough development, there are too many things going on that the film tries to juggle. Just in Patrice’s story, there are many players the film has to give time to, including her rival art gallery and its owner, the various collectors who now want a piece of the Bag Man, the art critic played by Debi Mazar, and her assistant (Amy Keum), all of whom have to be introduced and their roles in the plot explained. The underworld side has the mob bosses, and the backstory of Reggie worked into the film. It’s quite a complex story, and it's in these complexities that writers like the Coens find so much of the humor. It happens in this film, but not as expertly done.
Despite that, The Kill Room was a perfectly enjoyable time at the movies, assuming you find dark humor entertaining. Paone’s second feature film shows a lot of promise, and the cast seemed to have had a blast based on their screen presence. It’s possible that we all just need to find that inner artist to help express ourselves to escape the joyless job in which we are currently trapped.
The Kill Room is in theaters on September 29.