Not every hostage wants to be saved.
September 14, 2001 was probably not the most auspicious date to release a movie, especially one attempting to be a quirky indie dark comedy about a suicidal bank teller taken hostage by a bumbling robber. To the extent that audiences were going to the movies at all on that date, the appetites of the day called for lighter, more life-affirming fare. However, if anyone had been paying attention on that date, they would have noticed just such a dark comedy trying to tackle some very difficult material.
Facts of the Case
Fade in: We see a couple jumping from a bridge, into a wide river below.
Flash back to twenty-four hours earlier. Shawn Holloway (Selma Blair—Legally Blonde, Highway, The Sweetest Thing) is having a lousy day. Her boss/boyfriend takes her for granted, using her for fun and then running back to his wife in the morning. To top things off, her goldfish is floating at the top of the fishbowl—not a good way to start the day. Actually, she's having more than a lousy day—in her eyes, she is having a lousy life. She works as a loan officer in a bank, and hates her job and the people she must deal with. (Been there, done that.) In her eyes, her misery all goes back to her parents' divorce back when she was eleven years old and the father who deserted her. To make a long story short, she has decided to end it all. She summons some liquid courage and makes her way to the top of the building where she works, ready to decorate the pavement.
Meanwhile, in a separate storyline, Charlie Anders (Max Beesley—Glitter, Hotel (2001), the BBC's Tom Jones miniseries) is a hard-luck petty criminal from London's East End. How he came to America to ply his trade is not totally clear, but he's had a hard life; he emerged from a couple of years in the clink to find that his true love had left him, and that his daughter didn't even know he existed. He tries to maintain a crusty, cynical façade but it's mostly an act.
The two lives (and storylines) collide when Charlie and two of his buddies bungle a bank robbery at the bank where Shawn works. One of his accomplices is shot, his wheelman flees with the getaway car, and Charlie races deeper into the bank, trying to evade cops and security guards. He emerges on the roof, where he finds Shawn, preparing for her swan dive into the undiscovered country. He takes her hostage, but he has a problem: she's hard to force into doing anything, since she would really prefer that he just shoot her and get it over with. Charlie, desperate to survive, makes a deal with her. If she will play along and help him escape now, he will kill her later.
The great thing about independent film is the ability to tackle situations and story ideas that the major studios would never touch. A romantic comedy where the leading lady attempts suicide and the leading man lives a life of crime probably wouldn't make it very far in mainstream Hollywood. No matter what the result, one has to applaud the filmmakers just for getting a movie like this made.
Leading lady Selma Blair does a passable job in this picture, but she is hampered by a script that forces her to be gloomy, self-centered and depressed in a pseudo-hip, "ironic" sort of way for most of her screen time. There are some scenes later on where she is allowed to lighten up, and some very emotional moments such as when Shawn confronts her father over a lifetime of neglect and resentment. When given the chance, Blair does a good job with the material, but for far too much of the movie she is required to give a one-note performance.
Max Beesley does a good job as well as Charlie, the good natured criminal. Beesley is allowed to show his full range a lot more effectively than Blair, and he comes across with some very strong emotional scenes, especially when Charlie tells Shawn of his family and how he lost them to another man.
The video quality on this DVD release from Lions Gate is merely adequate. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in what looks to be a passable anamorphic transfer. Blacks are solid and crisp, and colors are nicely saturated and vibrant most of the time. Reds are a bit over-saturated at times, to the point that they seem to glow and jump off the screen. This also causes Caucasian flesh tones to skew towards the pink in these scenes. Picture clarity is good for the most part, although there are some glaring instances of edge enhancement and aliasing. The quality varies quite a bit during the movie, with some interior scenes showing a lot of grain and some apparent pixelization. Exterior scenes fare better, but shots including the sky or clouds show typical digital difficulties. There are also some occasional problems with fine texture details, such as Blair's hair, but these are minimal. It's a good transfer, especially for a no-budget indie flick, and if you sit back at a normal viewing distance from your TV you probably won't be bothered by too many of the flaws.
The audio portion of the disc is presented in Dolby Pro-Logic Stereo. The sound quality is acceptable but not outstanding. The indie-rock soundtrack fares best, with the music coming through nicely in the whole audio range, and through the entire sound system. The rest of the audio leaves a lot to be desired, however. Dialogue comes across as a bit muffled and can be hard to understand at times. Ambient background sounds come across fine, but other effects such as gunshots lack the desired punch. All told, for a low-budget movie the sound quality is about what one would expect.
In the realm of extra content we have a nice selection for such an obscure flick. There is a selection of video interviews with co-stars Blair and Beesley. Each actor's comments are broken into four segments. The running time is pretty short at about four minutes each, but it is nice to get a glimpse of each of them out of character and to get their thoughts on their characters and the making of Kill Me Later. Also provided is a theatrical trailer. It's an R-Rated "red-band" trailer; I can only assume this is because it does contain references to violence, drinking, and suicide. Given the kinds of things that regularly appear in trailers these days, sticking this one with an R rating seems a bit extreme.
The main piece of extra content is a commentary track featuring director Dana Lustig and screenwriter Annette Goliti Gutierrez. The two women are talkative and open throughout the track, sharing a wide variety of information ranging from camera stops and shutter speeds to the quirks of filming in Vancouver. The commentary does get annoying at times, such as when the two feel the need to point out at some length that no goldfish were actually harmed in the making of the film, or when Gutierrez actually refers to her own father's suicide as "ironic." Overall it's a good track, nicely balanced between the technical aspects of filming and what they wanted to accomplish on the one hand and amusing production anecdotes on the other hand.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the premise and story promise something dangerous and new, the execution of Kill Me Later is for the most part completely conventional. There are moments when the direction and editing break into new territory; unfortunately, these are generally the most inept portions of the movie. It's a good thing that this movie comes with a commentary track; otherwise, we would have been left wondering in many instances just what the director was trying to do. For one thing, we learn early and often that Lustig is a big fan of the musical montage. So much so, in fact, that her movie at times feels more like an MTV music block than a feature film. The montages generally don't accomplish much as far as moving the story forward. The indie rock songs go on for far too long in most cases, and often give annoyingly precise clues as to how the characters are feeling.
On top of all this, Lustig and Co. are fond of "edgy" editing, with lots of jump cuts, cuts that break the thirty-degree rule, and cuts that appear to compress time but actually don't. Lustig also enjoys using…well, I'm not sure what they are called, but I call them repeat cuts, where, for example, we see a character slam a car door not once but three or four times in rapid succession, maybe from slightly different (but less than thirty degrees different) angles. She states in the commentary track that she wanted the editing to give the movie life and a sense of "energy" that she implies was missing from the script. In addition to these problems there are some just plain weird choices she made, such as filming a conversation between two cops in two different locations, and cutting back and forth between the two locations randomly as the two men carry on their conversation. It's distracting and pointless, and directorial hand-waving of the very worst kind.
There are some major problems with the script as well. Will I really be giving any spoilers if I tell you that Shawn and Charlie can't stand each other at first, but chemistry builds between them as they share a day on the run? It is a major disappointment that a movie which tries deal with such wild and dangerous subject matter is assembled from such bland, off-the-shelf parts. We even have a standard-issue pair of cops following the case, one grizzled old veteran and his young, overeager partner. The young guy keeps reciting more obscure suicide statistics than my Sociology 101 professor, until we are hit with a "shocking" revelation about his background that makes the whole proceedings feel like a cheesy after-school special.
Perhaps most irritating about the execution of the film is a cheap plot twist at the end, involving Shawn's boss/lover Matthew. Suffice it to say that this twist ties a few too many plot threads together a little too neatly, in a time-worn cliché that is at least as old as W.C. Fields's The Bank Dick.
There is a lot to dislike in Kill Me Later, but I don't want to be excessively hard on it or those who made it. It is a sign of benevolent guidance in the universe that any independent film gets made, and my hat is off to them just for trying. I do wish they had tried a little harder, though, and had come up with something truly original rather than just a mishmash of the same old storytelling clichés posing and something new and different. With a more conformist approach to the actual filmmaking and a less conformist approach to the story, they might really have had something good here.
I'm willing to cut Kill Me Later some slack just because it is a miracle that it ever got made. Besides, Lustig and Gutierrez mention that they watch a lot of DVDs with commentary tracks, and that earns them some points in my book. I find the film and those who made it guilty of a lot of things, but I will suspend their sentence and encourage them to make a better movie next time. Lions Gate deserves some degree of honorable mention for their good treatment of an obscure, independent film.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Dana Lustig and Screenwriter Annette Goliti Gutierrez
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