Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
I didn't want to like "Violet and Daisy," a dark comedy that owes its premise to the first act of "Pulp Fiction" and its appeal to the enduring popularity of seeing young girls being brought up as assassins. But something funny happened with "Precious" screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher's bizarrely charming directorial debut — it actually works.
Finding the ethereal in a mix of the surreal and gallows humor similar to Martin McDonagh's pitch black hitman tale "In Bruges," "Violet and Daisy" follows the film's two title characters played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, respectively, as they head to the apartment of a man (James Gandolfini) who hijacked a shipment of cologne and cash from the wrong guy and now must pay with his life, which in turn will pay for new dresses for the girls once they take the job. Violet and Daisy arrive at the apartment too early, and the film stays a tad too long, but in the interim, trouble starts when they fall asleep and the unnamed man shows them a modicum of comfort by draping a blanket over their legs and their guns as they slumber on his couch. Not resembling the brash killers dressed as nuns who blast away their targets in the film's opening sequence when they awaken, Violet and Daisy rise and shine with uncertainty about their mission and each other, loyalties shifting fluidly between all three in the room.
The tone of the film, on the other hand, is surprisingly assured, creating a dreamlike environment with a lilting piano score and sun-dappled cinematography Vanja Cernjul that's in stark contrast to the cold reality of the situation. Fletcher plays the juxtaposition for all its worth, comparing the pop of a gun to the burst of bubble gum and having the assassins show their age by doing the "internal bleeding dance," where the girls jump up and down on their victims as if they were a bed at a pajama party.
In a world where everyone’s days appear to be numbered, there's nothing grim about death here, only the suggestion that too many waste their lives unclear about their purpose – Gandolfini's character is accepting of his imminent demise as a means of helping the daughter he long neglected and Daisy beginning to question her choice of profession, with the trigger-happy Violet as the confident standard by which the two others are measured.
The film falls short of the transcendence it clearly reaches for with Daisy's vision quests and Violet’s bouts with happenstance, which are about as lightweight as either of the heroines are physically. Yet for all the knowingly pretentious touches such as chapters entitled “Dreaming Flowers” and incongruous imagery — the girls’ black dog named “Whitey” and their use of a tricycle to get around — “Violet and Daisy” is consistent enough to be fully transporting.
Bledel and Ronan have an easy chemistry and are both so deeply invested in the material that you never question it, while Gandolfini is the real pleasure here in a subdued performance that has more quiet power than anything he’s done since “The Sopranos.” With the action contained mostly to a single apartment, the trio keep the walls from completely closing in, even as some of their conversations get a little more wistful and ponderous approaching the film’s climax, and an appearance by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a rival hitter and Danny Trejo as a middleman do little more than add to the alternate universe.
But as Fletcher said before the film premiered at Toronto, “I hope you keep in mind this is different” and unlike so many films that hide under quirk, “Violet and Daisy” genuinely is. Gleefully amoral and esoteric, its destiny as a cult hit is probably already written, but otherwise it’s a breath of fresh air that defies classification, despite the fact it comes at the expense of someone’s last gasp.
"Violet & Daisy" currently does not have U.S. distribution. It will play Toronto once more on September 18th at the Scotiabank Theatre 1.