‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’: Film Review

Peter Debruge

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The coronavirus has made everyone a bit sensitive, with good reason, inspiring memes around such now-touchy movie titles as delayed 007 entry “No Time to Die” and Emily Ting’s culture-shock indie “Go Back to China.” To this list of inappropriately named movies we might add “Why Don’t You Just Die!” — except that Russian director Kirill Sokolov’s pitch-black horror debut, which nixed its April 10 theatrical plans in favor of a straight-to-streaming option two weeks later, is the kind of deranged Grand Guignol bloodbath that’s wrong in all the right ways. So, in a sense, it fits (and is certainly preferable to the original “Papa, sdokhni,” which translates to “Daddy, Die!”).

Set almost entirely in a corrupt cop’s Moscow apartment, “Why Don’t You Just Die!” is a neatly conceived dark-comedy chamber piece — à la the Wachowski siblings’ clockwork-perfect queer-noir “Bound” or Sidney Lumet’s airtight but otherwise diabolical “Deathtrap” — in which a simple setup spirals into unimaginably twisted mayhem. A tough, agitated young man named Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov, sporting a Batman hoodie and the snub-nosed profile of a classic Dick Tracy thug) stands on the landing, vibrating with anticipation and holding a rusty hammer behind his back. He clearly has some kind of score to settle. But what awaits him behind the door?

The answer, in terms intended to preserve the pleasure of discovery for audiences: a double-barreled shotgun, a sack stuffed with cash, an interrogation by power drill and enough secrets and surprises to fuel an HBO limited TV series — except, in this case, it’s all been compressed to about 90 minutes of ultra-stylized and highly efficient storytelling.

The apartment belongs to what might have been Matvei’s future in-laws, had things taken a different path with his kinky pixie girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde). Instead, she gives him a mandate to kill her father, telling horrible stories of cruelty and abuse. Dim but devoted, Matvei arrives riled up and ready to attack, like a caged bull set to charge his matador — although the hammer suggests that perhaps he hasn’t really planned out how this confrontation is supposed to go. Still, Matvei’s energy makes for an instantly tense opening. In fact, Sokolov’s film (which he also scripted) is never more gripping than at the outset, as on-edge viewers try to anticipate the coiled-spring potential of what’s to come.

Olya’s father, a bald-headed meat barrel of a man named Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev), opens the door and allows the boy in, and for a few nervous minutes, they sit on opposite sides of the dining room table sizing one another up — the same table through which Andrei will imminently toss the unwelcome visitor, using Matvei’s hammer against him in a move most pro wrestlers couldn’t pull off. This bone-crunching, tone-setting prologue runs nearly 12 minutes and lays the foundation for all that follows, culminating in a slow-motion POV shot of Matvei’s face smashing through the screen of an old-school TV set — an image that could almost be lovely, if we weren’t wincing through it — before the film’s first flashback.

To give you an idea of just how bloody “Why Don’t You Just Die!” eventually gets, consider this: Borrowing the bold, over-art-directed look of “Amèlie,” production designer Viktor Zudin and costume designer Natalya Belousova employ two principal colors throughout, green and red, alternating the two in eye-pleasing ways. By the time the end credits roll, however, practically everything that was once green now appears scarlet. After the power-drill scene, for example, audiences can hardly tell that Andrei’s shirt was once a pale lima-bean green. He looks like Tim Roth at the end of “Reservoir Dogs,” in desperate need of a dry cleaner. Or a tourniquet.

Soon enough, the floors are so slippery with crimson fluid that the characters can barely stand up. One fella’s heart stops for 17 minutes, only to revive for another round of punishment. Matvei may not have been top of his class, but he’s got a much higher pain threshold than most (hence the film’s title, since he doesn’t die easily), and that makes Andrei’s efforts to kill the kid more complicated than they ought to be. He’s a dirty cop after all, assisted at one point by his equally crooked partner, Yevgenich (Michael Gorevoy), which is to say: Matvei never stood a chance — although the tables do turn when Olya reenters the picture.

All that gratuitous bloodshed aside, “Why Don’t You Just Die!” ought to be romantic in its way. It belongs to that sexy subgenre of movies, like “Criminal Lovers” or “The Last Seduction,” where a thick-headed chump tries to prove his chivalry by killing someone on his lover’s behalf, all in pursuit of a relationship that would have a short shelf life under even the best of circumstances. Sokolov doesn’t focus much on that underlying motivation, dedicating his creativity instead to all the ways these characters can do harm to one another. Considering the film was made on modest means half a world away, it’s safe to say that Sokolov has gotten our attention. But it’s been almost two years since this nasty little number premiered on the genre-film circuit. Why doesn’t he just direct his next movie!

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