Of all the things I imagined Oscar-winner Geoffrey Fletcher might choose for his directing debut, "Violet & Daisy," the story of two teenage assassins on the loose in New York City, was not on the list.
Fletcher, who won the Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Sapphire's searing novel "Precious," once again delves into the lives of teens in troubled situations in "Violet & Daisy." But any other comparisons end there.
Instead of the capacity of the human spirit to soar against impossible odds that defined "Precious," Fletcher, as both writer and director, is interested in the whys and wherefores of girls who blow giant pink bubble-gum bubbles that pop in sync with their gun blasts.
He has two actors who are good at playing innocent in Alexis Bledel as Violet and Saoirse Ronan as Daisy. James Gandolfini arrives as comeuppance in the form of a hit they're forced to reconsider.
The killings speed the narrative up, while contemplation slows it down. That juxtaposition — of a childlike view of life and lethal inclinations — plays out in cartoony ways with black-and-white title cards separating the various killing sprees.
"Cold pizza and a warm puppy" kicks things off. That little touch of irony helps lighten the mood before the blood bath that follows.
By the time we meet Violet and Daisy, the girls have been freelance assassins for a few years. At the moment, they're taking jobs because they want party dresses, a darker-than-usual spin on consumerism's deadly clutch. The particular gowns they long for are from a collection by their pop-star idol, Barbie Sunday — a not-too-subtle jab at the perky plastic ideal.
The killings themselves are hyper-violent messes in the Quentin Tarantino tradition — very red and runny. But there's little of Tarantino's subtext or visual style. When Daisy and Violet are not killing, they revert back to more playful pursuits, as if their life is one big slumber party where bouncing on beds is allowed.
Both director of photography Vanja Cernjul and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, who shared an Oscar for set design with Karel Cerný on "Amadeus," do a bang-up job of creating a sense of those very different worlds.
Perhaps the late-night frolics are what lead Violet and Daisy to fall asleep waiting for one target to return. When Michael (Gandolfini) finds them asleep on his couch, guns in hand, he doesn't panic — he simply throws a blanket over them. Before long, he's baking them cookies.
And this is where the film begins to seriously crumble.
First, the milk that goes with the cookies leaves those big white mustaches that have long graced the "Got Milk" ad campaign. The imagery feels forced. The fast bonding they do with Michael and the introspection that triggers does as well. When one of them has to buy more bullets, things become deadly, and not in a good way.
Gandolfini has no trouble playing Michael, a man weary of life, while Bledel, who will probably be able to pull off teen roles for another 20 years, seems like she's reaching for the tough-girl persona.
Ronan is good at shifting between killer and kid. But it's impossible not to wish she would once again have a role that matches her talent. "Hannah" in 2011 was a more interesting teen assassin, but really nothing has come close to rivaling her finger-pointing 13-year-old in "Atonement," which earned her an Oscar nomination in 2008.
"Violet & Daisy" comes out of the gate guns blazing. Too bad it ends as a misfire.
'Violet & Daisy'
MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing behavior and language
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Mann Chinese 6, Hollywood