Tuesday 21 April 2020

On DVD: "Why Don't You Just Die!"

Our release schedules have traditionally told a different story, but Russian cinema isn't all serious, sombre-hued state-of-the-nation addresses made by vodka-swilling miserablists. With Why Don't You Just Die!, writer-director Kirill Sokolov unleashes - as one might a pitbull - a playfully brutal live-action cartoon that suggests Putinland may now fall subject to a run of Nineties-style crime comedies with a baseline of lurid misanthropy. It opens with a bang - several bangs, in fact, amid the kind of set-trashing donnybrook most movies would reserve for a climax. A young man called Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) introduces himself at the home of his girlfriend's parents, keen to make a very particular impression - with the hammer we see he's hiding behind his back. Trouble is his intended target, the girl's father Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev, resembling a more forbidding Dom Littlewood), is a corrupt copper of the old school who keeps a shotgun in his kitchen and reacts to even the hint of a threat with brute force, where the younger man displays a lithe cunning. They are as well-matched a pair of antagonists as the cinema has given us for some time. While we lay our bets, the opening act is establishing both a sickly colour scheme (the burst-capillary reds and vomitous greens of early Jeunet-and-Caro films) and, more crucially, a Looney Tunes tone: no matter how many times somebody gets smashed over the head or tossed through a supporting wall, they will re-emerge, as Wile E. Coyote did after plummeting off a cliff, ready for the next round of mayhem. With Kensington gore being splashed all over the shop, the plot slides backwards, to explain how these men got into this mess, and then forwards, to work through its aftermath. There is a lot of cleaning up to do, even before Andrei reaches for his cordless drill.

Tarantino, with his flip approach to violence, is the obvious inspiration, which could have been problematic, were Sokolov not so precise in his execution. There's not a single setpiece in the Tarantino filmography as quietly excruciating as the one in which Matvei has to retrieve a hairpin from the filthy U-bend beneath Andre's sink in order to free himself from the copper's handcuffs - and QT wouldn't have thought to cut in, as Sokolov does, an insert from a mocked-up public information film demonstrating the peculiar locking mechanism of said cuffs. The devil is in the detail, as they say, and here's where Sokolov begins to expose his own methodology, as he does when he cuts in an X-ray image of bones shattering when this hairpin manoeuvre fails and Matvei resorts to breaking his own wrist to free himself. Though limited in its scope - there's not an exterior to be seen - it's a film of constantly moving parts, and Sokolov's interest lies in where they click or (more often) rupture; he's caught doing something similar in piecing together his bric-a-brac narrative. Much as why don't you just die? is a phrase critics have cause to yell at overused generic tropes, Why Don't You Just Die! is unmistakably the work of someone who's seen a lot of movies, and resolved to restage many of their most memorable moments on a single front-room set. So Sokolov toggles through aspects of noir (the girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) is revealed as a duplicitous moll seducing the guileless Matvei to do her bidding) and the spaghetti Western (replete with electric guitar twangs and gunshots on the soundtrack); the set-up even recalls Meet the Parents - the kind of basic slapstick knockabout that smoothly crosses international borders - retooled for a higher body count.

Is there anything more to it than a digest of those titles that might have adorned the DVD shelf of a student at the University of Minsk in the late Nineties/early Noughties? Well, my critical faculties reactivated briefly amid a flashback that describes how Andrei let a Russian athlete off a murder charge in exchange for a large bung, then proceeded to swipe this blood money from under the nose of the partner who really needed it. The opening credits indicate Sokolov was financed by the Ministry of Culture, yet beneath his film's surface styling and layers of postmodern irony, it's possible to make out an altogether bleak vision of a Russia where every-man-for-himself has become the order of the day; were you being held at gunpoint, you could argue this literally broken home (authoritarian father, suicidally meek wife, put-upon offspring) isn't so very far detached from those in Andrei Zyvagintsev's sombre-hued Loveless and Leviathan. Still, that may be to attribute a seriousness of intent to Sokolov that isn't immediately apparent from the splatter unfolding in front of us: my gut feeling was that Why Don't You Just Die! is really only as representative of modern-day Russia as, say, Guy Ritchie's post-Tarantino runarounds are of modern-day Britain. It bears the usual limitation of the Tarantino copyist, in that its sights are set on prompting sniggers and smirks rather than anything more lasting, but for just under 100 minutes, it did manage to make me smile, and in a couple of especially outré places, to make me laugh. Callous fun is preferable to no fun whatsoever.

Why Don't You Just Die! is now available on Blu-Ray through Arrow, and will be available to stream via Arrow TV and Amazon Prime from May 4.

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