[Originally published at Cinespect]
The first 10 minutes of “Violet & Daisy” are among the most unbearable of the cinematic year, a gender-flipping riff on “The Boondock Saints” that proves definitively that even a goof on that film cannot be anything more than tedious and self-consciously hip. Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are hitwomen first seen heading to an assignment wearing nun habits and carrying pizza boxes that hide their pistols, a too-precious image by half that miscalculates the novelty of seeing young women play ultraviolent parts. Punctuating a lifeless shootout with the sort of sub-Tarantinian banter that was old hat by 2000, “Violet & Daisy” threatens to collapse in on itself before the story can even start.
Everything changes, however, when Violet and Daisy head out to a new assignment and find their target eager for death. Michael is played by James Gandolfini, whose lumbering nature instantly slows down the bubbly, dark-chic tone of the film. He greets his killers cordially, encourages them to finish the job, and even makes them cookies when they hesitate to kill him. He does not even try to defend himself when he comes home to find them waiting for him asleep in his bed, a sort of reverse Goldilocks scenario in which the bear unsettles through his welcoming acceptance. The actor dissipates the noxiously cute tone that pervades the film’s opening, turning what promised to be an ironically chipper slaughter picture into a melancholic chamber piece that ducks wan genre tropes for true character study.
Gandolfini’s role is the sort it’s now all too easy to read too much into, a character who spends the entire film assembling his own eulogy. Yet it’s a far greater testament to the late actor’s skills that this was just another job for him, and the wealth of emotion with which he imbues the part proof of his preternatural ability to suggest an entire lifetime in a glance. Gandolfini was a huge man, but the heaviest things on him were always his eyelids, as if in a feat of reverse physics they were what propped up the rest of him. He gives even the smallest glance gulfs of pain, though he always ducks inchoate self-pity for a clarity so rare it’s no wonder the young women sent to kill him are too fascinated by it to carry out their job. Nevertheless, Gandolfini also helps ground the film in a more natural, effective humor, even when getting into macabre conversations in which he tries to help his would-be assassins kill him. A sample: Michael tries to save Violet the trouble of a trip to buy bullets by telling the girls, “I’ve got a pretty good steak knife…” and he even manages to make his silly follow-up, “Just tryin’ to help,” sound earnest and believable.
As a rising tide lifts all ships, so too does Gandolfini bring out the best in his co-stars. This is not Ronan’s first time playing a young professional whose innocence makes her capacity for violence all the more disturbing, but she never allows Daisy to be Hanna lite. Hanging around with Michael as Violet fetches bullets allows Ronan to bring out the childlike qualities of the child she plays, the bubbliness that grated so badly in the opening scene at last given a proper outlet to add cheer to Michael’s life without suffocating the film. As for Bledel, she has not shined like this since “Gilmore Girls,” overcoming the inevitable stiffness of her delivery with a slight huff that successfully masks her sometimes awkward cadence as professional impatience. And if Violet is the more dangerous and uncompromising of the two, she has the moments of greater vulnerability, especially as implied details of her treatment at the hands of rival, male assassins make her sudden, paralytic fear around them all the more horrifying.
Geoffrey Fletcher’s script keeps a surprising number of twists at the ready, and all of them succeed not only in throwing the viewer for a loop but also in deepening the increasingly inescapable quagmire in which the characters find themselves. Betrayals of others’ trust and one’s own convictions threaten to tear already loose bonds even as Michael helps bring the two killers closer, and the film itself ultimately becomes a light treatise on everything from female friendship to the morality of dishonesty to the question of whether a death on one’s own terms is preferable to a life without resolution. A flurry of gunfire punctuates both of the film’s stabs at action, but it’s a single gunshot that truly communicates loss, and those who cannot make it past the film’s rocky start to get to the beautiful work within are missing out.
“Violet & Daisy” wears its virtues on its sleeves, and as such Cinedigm’s Blu-ray goes to no great lengths to defend the film from its generally hostile reception, with only a slideshow of posters and the theatrical trailer included as extras. Still, it faithfully preserves the balance that Fletcher and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul strike between bright color palettes and the somber, duller tones that creep into the frame with Gandolfini’s introduction, and the audio track is subtly mixed to favor dialogue over gunshots. It’s a modest package for a modest but rewarding film, a spare release that keeps all focus on the actors, which is where it belongs.