Although it played in 2011 at TIFF and saw a release in the US earlier this year, the bizarre hitwoman action drama Violet & Daisy kicks off a theatrical run in Canada this weekend most likely because it features the late James Gandolfini in a beautifully acted supporting role. The rest of the film from Geoffrey Fletcher (writer of Precious) is thankfully up to doing the late co-star a great deal of justice, melding dark humour, gory violence, teenage shenanigans, satire, and drama in equal measure. It’s a strange, strange movie, but in a pretty unique and compulsively watchable way.
Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are a pair of teenage hitpeople that are able to ruthlessly murder and escape undetected because no one would ever suspect them. On the verge of going on vacation and in need of money to buy hot new dresses fashioned by their pop starlet idol, the duo get called in by their boss’ middleman (Danny Trejo) to take out a thief who made off with a lot of cash. When they arrive to take out their mark (Gandolfini), it turns out they he actually wants to die and that he’s really a sweet, melancholy kind of guy. Violet and Daisy wrestle with the thought of actually having to off a guy who gives them cookies and is actually willing to talk to them like adults, and things get complicated when a bunch of thugs the girls hate, the police, a rival hitwoman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and their own secrets begin to get in the way.
There’s so much going on in this story that at times it’s hard to keep everything straight and with a structure often made up of disjointed flashbacks to before and during the timeline of the narrative, there’s a suspicion that somewhere along the line this was a film much longer than the lean 88 minutes it’s at now. Not every time jump and flashback is necessarily successful, often feeling like castaway footage from an earlier cut of the film rather than something structurally integral to the story. Trejo and Baptise are really solid, but they really each only have one scene to make any real impact on the film. They feel like they were written as larger roles, but through either scheduling were only available for a day or were edited down considerably to keep the meat of the story intact. But whatever has been ultimately cobbled together here works simply because there really can’t be said there’s another film with this plot told in this same manner. It could be the jitters of Fletcher directing his first feature, but there’s enough craft here to want to see him direct again.
Bledel and Ronan play the leads as kids and not adults in kids’ bodies. They’re kind of goofy and surprisingly unprofessional at a job they’re apparently only good at because they can shoot, fight, and escape without notice or incident (at one point hilariously using gurgling bodies as trampolines). Gandolfini obviously plays the father figure neither girl has in their life because he’s simultaneously mourning the estrangement and impending loss of his own daughter (Tatiana Maslany, in a miniscule pre-Orphan Black role). Instead of constantly keeping the violence and kinetic story cutting at a high pitch, the film settles into a nice groove where Gandolfini’s allowed to talk to the girls separately and together to flesh out not only what the girls are missing in their lives, but also why he’s genuinely ready to move on and end his own life.
Ronan does fine work as the novice member of the duo, afraid that a secret she’s keeping from Violet will come back to hurt her or get them both killed. Bledel doesn’t always nail her character’s sometimes clumsily written, hard-boiled dialogue, but she’s a credible badass trying not to let her scars show while being a slightly older big sister to her partner. They capture the film’s ridiculous tone nicely and roll with it.
But it’s impossible not to be moved by Gandolfini’s work here, especially after his passing. From the moment he arrives on screen and the first time he smiles, it’s an instant reminder of how great he was. Next to his voicework in Where the Wild Things Are and his recent turn in Enough Said, this ranks up there with his most sensitive and thoughtful work. Sure, there’s a completely unintended and now unforeseeable melancholy from him playing a dying man embracing his fate, but it works in the film’s favour. It will be hard not to shed a tear for him as the story unfolds, but a lot of that was the doing of the film itself and his performance in it, not really the hindsight.