Friday November 14, 1997
Imagine Terrence Malick's "Badlands" done as black comedy, with the rural atmosphere of "Psycho" and dialogue rubbed against flint, and you are in the general vicinity of writer-director Bill Bennett's deliciously twisted "Kiss or Kill."
The specific vicinity is the vast wasteland between Adelaide and Perth in southwest Australia, where Bennett takes us along on an eventful ride with Al Fletcher and Nikki Davis (Matt Day and Frances O'Connor, both of "Love and Other Catastrophes"), a young couple deeply in love and even more deeply in trouble.
Al and Nikki are small-time cons. She picks up businessmen in hotel bars and goes with them to their rooms, where she drugs them and lets Al in to rob them. But their latest job has gone wrong. Nikki accidentally gave the man a lethal overdose, and all they've come away with are a few bucks and a briefcase containing a videotape.
The tape, they soon realize, is worth something. It reveals famous rugby star Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) as a pedophile, meaning they may have killed a blackmailer. But before they figure out what to do with the tape, they hit the road for Perth, with a pair of homicide detectives and the frantic Zipper Doyle on their trail. And their pursuers are the least of their troubles.
Between the setup and conclusion of Bennett's story, a lot of miles are covered, a few grisly murders occur, a genuine mystery unfolds, suspicions between Al and Nikki grow, and an amazing amount of character development is realized. It's a measure of the director's sure-handedness, his stars' performances and the captivating power of undying love that we can take off with such unappealing characters and come to care for their well-being.
Bennett, an award-winning Australian television reporter, has some experience with road movies. He made himself known to the international film community with his debut film, "Backlash," and then caught Hollywood's eye with his 1994 "Spider & Rose," about the relationship between a cranky ambulance driver and the old lady he has to take on a long journey home.
The upshot was a studio offer to direct "Two If by Sea," another road movie, starring Denis Leary and Sandra Bullock as lovers on the run. It was a bad movie and a worse experience, and Bennett went home to Australia, vowing to stick to films he writes, directs and controls.
"Kiss or Kill" is the work of a free and ambitious spirit. It's a film noir thriller, a love story, a psychological drama, a whodunit and even a bit of a western. And somehow, amid the "Twilight Zone" eccentrics we meet along the road, Al and Nikki hold both our empathy and our fascination.
People are dying around Al and Nikki--in their sleep with their throats slit--and with no one else around, they begin to suspect each other. Al begins to wonder what Nikki does while sleepwalking, and as the body count grows, she wonders how far he will go to commit petty theft.
Bennett has written himself into a corner from which he just barely escapes. He's asking the audience not just to sympathize with the couple, but to put themselves in their place. It succeeds because of the amount of character detail worked into the story. Without sentimentalizing their pasts, Bennett gives us enough background to understand how Al and Nikki got to be who they are, and why they need each other so much.
Day and O'Connor have strong chemistry, and so, in a more comic vein, do Chris Haywood and Andrew Gilbert, playing the bantering cops tracking them. One of the film's highlights is an improvised scene where one of the cops is interrogating the other about why he doesn't eat bacon.
Other standouts in the cast are Barry Otto as an old man who stows away in Al and Nikki's car, then invites them into his desert shack for a kangaroo dinner, and Max Cullen, as a nutty motel owner who whips them up an ill-fated fondue dinner with a blowtorch.
Kiss or Kill, 1997. R, for some graphic sexuality, violence and language. Released by October Films. Director-writer Bill Bennett. Producers Bennett, Jennifer Bennett. Executive producers Mikael Borglund, Gary Hamilton. Cinematographer Malcolm McCulloch. Editor Henry Dangar. Production design Andrew Plumer. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Frances O'Connor as Nikki. Matt Day as Al. Chris Haywood as Hummer. Barry Otto as Adler Jones. Max Cullen as Stan.