Women Who Kill:
Profiles of Female Serial Killers
by Carol Anne Davis
The two things that connect for me in this highly unusual killer thriller are its noirish tendency and the pure and distinct creative vision of its director. That last part is so distinctive and consistent, it brings to mind that oft-overused descriptive word, auteur. For better or worse, Lee Daniels' directorship is a story in itself.
He's new to the film helm but his taste territory was clearly marked out by the fact that he produced 2001's "Monster's Ball" and 2004's "The Woodsman," noir dramas of great distinction. That predilection for material and visual sensibility, combined with a script by his "Monster's Ball" writer, Nick Rokos, created this unique, slightly mystifying, almost mystical original work on the theme of the professional killer.
Starting with the relationships. They're nothing if not peculiar, and they set your mind abuzz about possibilities and choices. It's about as controversial as it can be, but that's just sociology, and that can be put aside when the drama is so daringly delicious because of it. But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let's start with the backstory.
Rose (Helen Mirren), years ago, was involved with Mikey's abusive father. When she could take his cruelty to his own son no longer, she shot the bastard and a hitwoman was born. Also, a sort of stepmom who raised him, trained him, developed a lucrative business (killing professionally always comes with big paydays) and, when he became a full fledged man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), took him in as both crime partner and lover.
When we pick up on them, she's dying of cancer but still operational in the family business. When a sociopath of a crime boss (Stephen Dorff) decides to off his wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), our duo picks up the contract. But, the poor woman's pregnant and, facing her own death, Rose lets her sympathies overrule her work ethic. Perhaps she sees the new life as a spiritual balance against the loss of her own. Mikey is disgusted by his partner's decision to save the contractee's life, but we come to learn that as tough and unmerciful as he is, he's the follower of the team. He can express disagreement with all the facial signs he can come up with, but he does as she wants.
From there it's a race to outsmart the wiles of the murderous villain after them, following their trail, the birth of the baby, a change of relationships, and a few other surprise developments.
All of which is very stylishly rendered in muted tones, limited resolution, gauzy softness and color saturation by cinematographer M. David Mullen that aids and abets the challenging dimensions of the characters and the offbeat story. It's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" in an altered consciousness--one that'll bring arthouse habituees to attention, if not to their feet out of respect for courage and originality. Critics, however, might be less forthcoming. They may object that it's not Tarantino, as in "Pulp Fiction." For my part, that's a virtue. Not that I don't love what the Quentin master turns out, but he doesn't own the genre or the style. Besides, originality is its own reward. And this is a highly rewarding new vision for 2006 that earns admiration.
We also get Mirren in rare, good form, using her spectacular stylish presence with short haircut that imparts youthful energy and competence. She makes a fascinating impression as a warped, methodical hitman off her regularities--and provides as good a performance as she's done in a uniformly distinguished career.
As for Gooding, count this as his best. If there was any doubt about the acting space he's able to occupy, (perhaps because of his devastatingly one-note roughness in "Dirty") the controlled, reserved shadings of this character should dispel it. Part of my applause goes to the fact that Ryan Pillippe had first crack at the part. Show me the money. Show me more Cuba Gooding, Jr.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals