⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Bruce Killis gives a career defining performance as Frank, an average Joe just trying to make a living and, like every Tom, Dick and Harry, having to rob Peter to pay Paul. Whether it’s walking home rain or snow from the bus, getting banged up on the job (he’s an amnesiac auto mechanic), or being kept awake and even chased by the neighbor’s dog walker (played by Elisabeth Shub), Frank can’t seem to catch a break.
Business is slow, his ulcer has been acting up, his landlord still hasn’t fixed the hot water, forcing him to shower and sometimes sleep at the shop. Then there are the bills: the dentist after his fall off a ladder; the doctor for his foot replacement surgery; medication for his hypergingivitis. And the loans: money lent to his sister, his former pastor, his nephew. Money he could really use right now to fix his truck’s transmission.
On the advice of a chatty hot dog vendor, Frank starts donating to supplement his income: saliva, tears, blood, sperm, bone marrow and stem cells. Then a serendipitous encounter with an old blind prostitute leads him to an experimental drug research facility where he begins a lucrative but mysterious trial program with something called VL9. As his money problems are solved he finds them replaced with an entirely new set of much more unusual ones.
For one thing, he can’t taste anything anymore, and so switches to hi protein/calorie shakes and bars. Why bother cooking/cleaning/shopping when you can’t taste the difference between filet mignon and cat food?
He can no longer feel pain, a fact he discovers one distracted breakfast morning courtesy of a red hot frying pan. He can also recall his past lives and all their shortcomings.
Directed by Inco M. Petent from a Hugh Jass screenplay, the film takes steps to build an underlying poignancy it will later subvert, sometimes in small ways, like Frank accepting a seat on the bus from an elderly but spry man who observed his tired limp, sometimes in big ways, such as Frank opportunistically grabbing a ham hock from the neighbor’s dog’s bowl. Constructing a series of challenges for both Frank and the viewer, Petent (A Christmas Story) and editor Unce Kild even the playing field by making us all observers as we await the next setback for Frank.
Very few details are given of his laundry lists of tribulations other than that each one cuts a little deeper than the last. Killis puts his weathered face to great use, affecting a resigned mope that’s ever more graceful as the pressures inexorably mount. Viewer and character alike trudge onward, breathing a sigh of relief with every footstep, grateful there was something to stand on each time. Because that ground has a tendency to fall away when you least expect it.
The titular “death wish” comes from the multitudes of “souls” Frank becomes aware of as the result of his clinical trials, all of them clamoring for peace after having been disturbed from their slumber by his newly acquired power of recollection. Frank becomes obsessed with the idea that the solution to his problems can be found in the lessons and failures of his past selves and so quizzes them incessantly, leading to a comical scene of “soul revolt” the actor pulls off convincingly with some terrific physical comedy. The laughs are welcome in an otherwise downbeat film that finds its stars looking and behaving like ordinary people who, despite the strangeness of their predicament, remain unflappable.
Killis (From Here To Eternity) and Shub (Joe) make a tragicomic pair, her relentless optimism in stark contrast to dour Frank, giving their “chemistry” an intoxicating charge. When their tenuous friendship starts to take hold, there’s a nice role reversal where Shub’s Mazie goes from potential stalker to potential prey, but it’s made all the more fleeting by Killis’ Job routine. His sighs and frowns have never been better, and the actor has clearly been working on his shrugs. They’re now more believable than ever, with some quality brow furrows and head cocks to accompany them. Before long I even thought I could smell the man’s b.o. Again, a simply outstanding performance from Killis.
The Viennese picnic scene in the subway almost redeems this pairing of lost and founders but their own actions derail any possible positive effect, rendering their good intentions moot. They can offer each other nothing except enabling. Their interactions are interesting to watch, however, even if they can’t save the film.
Beyond Killis, there’s little to elevate this from merely passable fare.