To begin to describe Kill Me Three Times is a bit of an odd proposition. At its most basic, I suppose you’d call it a very black action comedy. But it’s not really a comedy so much as it’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But then it also at least touches on some really serious issues like infidelity, greed, and mental health. But then my primary reaction to the whole thing is something on the order of, “Gee, well that was some stupid fun just smart enough to be perfectly palatable.” Yup, this is a bit of an odd duck movie.
Although I suppose Simon Pegg’s slightly off kilter hitman Charlie Wolfe would be considered the most central character in the film, Kill Me Three Times is really about the interconnected shenanigans of eight characters. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, primarily because the plot is structured in such a way as to ease us into what’s going on. The movie starts with Pegg’s character apparently about to die an untimely death before executing the first of a couple different flashbacks to figure out just how he ended up on his back on an indoor rock garden.
When first we rewind, Charlie is nothing more than an observer, watching as dentist Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton) and wife Lucy (Teresa Palmer) plot to kill Lucy’s sister-in-law Alice (Alice Braga) and commit insurance fraud. It’s only later that we begin to unravel why Charlie’s following them, why someone’s got a bag full of cash, why at least four people are planning to flee the small Australian township they all inhabit, and more. Each character is connected by multiple threads, and after the first act of the film, the plot flashes back to its start once again to fill in some of the holes, while other mysteries are only revealed at the very climax of the movie.
The double flashback is a great way to keep all the characters straight, with the added bonus of forcing some added tension of the unknown into the early part of the plot, but I do have some minor gripes with the fact that it does feel like a very artificial construct. The nearest analogue for what actually occurs might be Ocean’s 11, when the full “how they did it” of the heist is finally revealed. Kill Me Three Times is a slower burn, however, and seems to think of itself more in the Memento mold, where the structure is integral to the plot. Maybe I’m forcing my own expectations onto the film, but the movie never makes the argument that the double flashback is necessary to the telling of its wild tale. To go back to the Ocean’s 11 comparison, part of the fun of that movie is the subtle obfuscation of the plan until that final reveal. Here, it feels more like there are several stories you could tell, so Kill Me Three Times will eventually try to tell them all.
The characters themselves are such a delightful mix of miscreants that it’s the couple who are having an affair that actually come off as the most blameless. That’s part of the fun – watching a bunch of morally suspect people manipulate each other in a film that clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously or suggest too strongly that any of them are very heroic. Recently I came down pretty hard on The Gunman for being a tale where lots of bad people fight each other, and you could level a similar complaint at Kill Me Three Times. But whereas The Gunman sought genuine sympathy in a scenario it wanted the audience to take seriously, Kill Me Three Times tells you from the opening line that it’s ok to be morally repulsed by its characters and still enjoy watching them.
Pegg’s hitman is a walking incarnation of the idea, a contract killer who takes joy in the simple pleasures of his job and is the first one to laugh at the incompetence of others. Pegg’s performance is also the standout of the film. It helps that it’s easily the flashiest character of the lot, but he’s the lone counterbalance to a bunch of characters who are mostly straight-laced, if (paradoxically) crooked in the eyes of the law.
The cinematography was also a particular pleasure on offer, if (like the rest of the movie) mostly a simple one. At a few key points in the film, director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (The Sessions) rotate the camera 90 degrees to give, literally, a new perspective on the situation. That opening shot of Charlie with him on his back is pitched 90 degrees clockwise, creating some visual humor by suggesting he’s looking forward even as he has voiceover about, “How did it come to this?” At another point, a crooked police officer extorts someone with terrible gambling debts, and the frame twists to show his dominance, so as he thrusts his subject into a wall it instead appears he’s pinning the mark to the floor. There’s not a whole lot of added substance to it, but it’s right in line with the film’s impression as a whole: a little flash, a little substance, and an excuse to have a little fun.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
I appreciate Kill Me Three Times for its subtle marriage of cleverness with stereotypically schlocky content. The camera twists, the narrative intermingling, Simon Pegg’s cheery hitman, even the forced structure of the plot, it all works as a wink and nod to the audience. This is a movie filled with bad people, and the filmmakers know it. They’re having fun with a slightly comic slant on a genre typically too self-serious, and they’re inviting the audience in for a good time.