Earning points for its title before it even started, Russian director Kirill Sokolov’s debut Why Don’t You Just Die? won the audience award at this year’s Cinepocalypse Film Festival in Chicago. For genre fans, it’s easy to see why: the film is a screaming crowd-pleaser, fast-paced and extremely bloody, full of cinematic and narrative tricks. If ever there was a film determined to keep its audience’s attention, it’s this one.
Like the films it clearly takes after, Why Don’t You Just Die? starts small, then spirals outward. Without a hint of buildup, young antihero Matvei shows up at a detective’s apartment, bearing only a hammer and an instruction to kill. His target Andrei, however, senses something’s up, and their tense initial greeting rapidly becomes a no-holds-barred deathmatch, with any object in the apartment up for grabs as a weapon. Matvei is beaten and imprisoned, then escapes, then the conflict continues.
That’s all within the first twenty minutes or so.
The rest of the movie spiderwebs out from that central fight through flashbacks, cutaways, and asides, exploring the two men, the people in their lives, and the reasons that have brought them to this point in space and time. As it picks up steam, the plot folds in police bribery, a sex killer on the loose, child abuse, and more, keeping the story just on the good side of the divide between high drama and pulp. Everyone in the movie gets double-crossed or tricked at least once. Everyone has a reason to get back at someone else. Things get complicated, and violent, fast.
If this scenario – a bunch of cops and cons with axes to grind stuck together in a single location – reminds you of early Tarantino, you’re not far off. Sokolov almost relentlessly commits to entertaining his audience, seemingly as drunk on the possibilities of cinema as Tarantino at his most attention-grabbing. Camera movements act as punctuation to jokes, accompanied by “whoosh” sound effects to make them all the more impactful. The story jumps back and forth in time, and into characters’ imaginations. Slow motion is used liberally. And through it all, characters manage to maintain their verbal wit.
I’m not kidding about the violence, either. This is one of the more personally violent films in recent memory, with all kinds of injuries from gunshots to hammer wounds to power-drillings and beyond. Despite the liberal quantities of blood deployed on set – Andrei’s white shirt is soaked red by the end of the first act – such acts of violence are mere temporary setbacks for the characters. Like in a Looney Tunes cartoon – or perhaps more accurately, an Itchy & Scratchy one – characters bounce back from their wounds remarkably quickly, turning the movie into an ever-escalating back-and-forth of violence. They certainly feel pain, but they’re the best people in the world at muscling past it. Sensitive audiences will balk at the violence, but the tone needle is jammed all the way at the “comedy” end of the meter.
By the time this 100-minute rampage of Russian revenge careens to its predictably Shakespearean close, the audience has been pummelled with so much action, so many twists, that exhaustion seems inevitable. Without quite wearing out its welcome, it certainly makes the audience start to ponder the question posed by its title, as the characters take hit after hit after hit. In many ways, the experience offers a weird throwback to the waves of post-Tarantino thrillers that proliferated in the mid to late ‘90s, when directors like Danny Boyle and David Fincher were weaponising wild filmmaking tools and storytelling techniques to keep the audience riveted.
Between the violence, the chaos, and the tangled plot, the mess is almost too neat, too constructed to be believable. Believability isn’t chief on Sokolov’s agenda, though. He merely wants to entertain – and, where possible, to sneak in some commentary on the rampant corruption in modern Russia. He certainly succeeds. As for relatable emotional storytelling, it’s in there, but largely within the context of a twisty crime drama. It’s possible to feel empathy for these characters, but that emotional labour has to come alongside the intellectual labour of keeping up with the film’s breakneck pace – and with a visual sensibility that’s more about stylistic flourishes than tapping into the performances, that’s a little difficult.
Why Don’t You Just Die? is a wildly successful debut film for Sokolov. Its single-room antics (admittedly, the flashbacks and asides break out of that location a bit) are a strong use of limited resources, eking every possible bit of action out of a single space. Sokolov could do incredible things with a larger canvas, and on the strength of this debut it seems likely that he’ll get one. Juggling complex action and multi-stranded plots, and managing to keep his characters consistent throughout, he’s delivered a movie that could only ever be criticised as being too much.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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