Kill Me Again (Blu-ray)(Olive Films, 3.22.2016)
When John Dahl arrived on the filmmaking scene in 1989 with Kill Me Again, he had almost everything he needed to become a major auteur. Like fellow neo-noir writer-directors the Coen Brothers before him and Quentin Tarantino after him, he had a knack for inventive narrative ideas, ruthless characters, precise visuals, and the occasional flourish of absurdity. However, as his subsequent films -- both good (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, Rounders) and not so good (Unforgettable, Joy Ride, You Kill Me) -- have proven, Dahl lacks the most important virtue of the aforementioned auteurs: a distinctive sensibility. It's fitting, then, that he ultimately arrived at a career directing TV (including acclaimed series like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Justified, and Hannibal), a medium characterized by directorial interchangeability.
To be clear, I have a great deal of respect and affection for several of Dahl's films, but it's worth noting that his work never carried the weight, significance, or imagination of his generation's major auteurs. In this way, he's proudly continuing the tradition of skilled genre craftsmen like Don Siegel, but with a bit less risk and a bit more restraint. All that said, a case could be made that Kill Me Again is his finest hour as a filmmaker. In a classic noir setup, private detective Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) is approached by Fay Forrester (Kilmer's then-wife Joanne Whalley), a woman who needs to disappear after stealing a big bag of (previously stolen) money from her ex (Michael Madsen). Feeling the heat, Fay enlists Jack to help fake her death, making him a murder suspect and a target of Fay's many disgruntled victims.
As a debut, Kill Me Again was very nearly Dahl's Blood Simple or Reservoir Dogs, but the film's sensibility is a little too familiar. In some ways, Dahl's film plays like a generic crime film programmer from another era, but with a uniquely strong visual style and script. Dahl and co-writer David W. Warfield are particularly good at balancing the competing interests of their ensemble, resulting in a multi-focal narrative structure not unlike Tarantino's True Romance. Where Dahl and company drop the ball is the score -- which conventionalizes Dahl's idiosyncratic impulses -- and the superficial, nihilistic conclusion. If Dahl had dared to look to human matters beyond greed, Kill Me Again might carry a more lasting residue. Instead, we have to settle for a well-crafted, entertaining debut -- that ultimately chooses disposable escapism over something a little more substantial. -- Jonathan Doyle