Slippery as blood-soaked porcelain, Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! is the thriller played as pitch-black farce, a Russian update on a noir formula that’s had both its slapstick and violence knobs turned up to the max. At its best when breathlessly racing from one set piece to the next, Sokolov’s comedy really only has a single central joke to its name—gouts of blood firing in high-pressure streams at moments when the audience least expects them—and yet delivers that simple dose of brutal humor with mindful precision.
The chaos commences simply enough, with the young Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) waiting outside a drab Russian apartment, hammer held in quivering hand and hidden behind his back. The object of his murderous intent—and, as we’ll learn, a pretty wide array of other people’s—is Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev), a scowling pit bull of a man who also happens to be a well-connected police detective. The hows and whys that brought the hammer-wielding Matvey to Andrey’s door won’t be revealed for a while, but Sokolov is far less coy about the kind of movie he’s making here: The tension of the two men’s awkward lunch-time chitchat boils over from cat-and-mouse to outright mayhem with shocking speed, breaking out into gunfire, nut punches, and attempted-murder-by-television within the first 10 minutes. Shot in loving, lurid close-ups, and backed by a soundtrack that jumps between tinkly farce tracks and horn-heavy Morricone riffs, the film’s approach to violence is both over-the-top and grounded. Every snapped bone, ruptured artery, or piece of furniture demolished over someone’s head brings with it a fresh and welcome cringe.
The film struggles more, though, when it comes time to talk, mostly because the vision it presents of human nature is so unendurably bleak. This is a movie where a home-invading assassin is one of the two most sympathetic characters, and where bad people do bad things to other bad people as a matter of shruggingly obvious course. As with the fight scenes, the audacity of the film’s overt nihilism carries a certain buzz, but its dive into the grime-clogged pipes of the human psyche doesn’t carry the same glee as its approach to vigorous gun- or knifeplay. Sokolov wants us to laugh at how unrelentingly, automatically, and pragmatically evil his characters are, but that same approach robs the film of any possible reserves of empathy during the few instances when it tries to draw upon them.
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But despite the present-day action confining itself to a single, increasingly brutalized locale (and the accompanying sense of being trapped in the movie’s thoroughly amoral universe), Why Don’t You Just Die! never descends into claustrophobia. Sokolov includes plenty of flashbacks—and, in one inspired moment, a YouTube tutorial—to widen the scope, and his occasional fixations on certain objects and rituals, like a coffee urn boiling over or Andrey tearing with animalistic delight into a hunk of grotesque-looking sausage, keep the visual treats coming. Even when the film slows down substantially in its middle third, it never fails to splash a little color around to keep things interesting. (There are vampire movies that are less lustfully obsessed with blood.)
At its core, Why Don’t You Just Die! is a test of an audience’s capacity to find the “fun” in “fundamentally unlikable people.” When the viscera is flying, this approach works beautifully; even when you’re watching Matvey get brutalized through hands clasped over your eyes, you’re still watching. It’s only when the movie asks us to care about the motivations of characters who’ve proven themselves utterly unworthy of care that things get dicey or dull. On the other hand, this is also a movie containing a 20-second slow-motion shot of a dude taking a hurled TV set to the face. Presumably, you’ll know for yourself whether that’s worth taking a walk through the darkness to see.