STRESSED TO KILL
This is a review for the new Crime/Drama/Comedy film “Stressed To Kill”, Co- Written by Tom Parnell and Mark Savage, who also directs. Stressed To Kill follows Bill Lawrence (played by Bill Oberst Jr. of Circus Of The Dead), a fire safety contractor living a fairly mundane existence, who after suffering a heart attack, takes desperate measures in an attempt to reduce his blood pressure. The film also stars Armand Assante (of American Gangster and Judge Dredd), Marshal Hilton (The Bunnyman Massacre) *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/the-bunnyman-massacre-review/, Sonia Curtis, Paul Fanning, Derek Roberts, Lance Tafelski and Tom Parnell. This is my first time watching a Mark Savage film and after doing a little Imdb..being (ya know what I mean) I discovered that he is a fellow Aussie (who I assume is living and working in the US now), small world. He’s been involved in the industry for 30 years, so it’s great to hear of another Australian filmmaker having made the journey to “Hollywood” (so to speak).
I’ve always endorsed the notion of writers wanting to explore the depths of the human psyche. When it comes to behavior and our interactions with people and the world around us, each of us work in slightly different ways. Delving into the darker side of our sub-conscious is a risky undertaking, although I suppose there’s no safer medium for it than in a fictionalized environment such as film. This is exactly what’s going on with Parnell and Savage’s, Stressed To Kill. It’s a dark and often comedic (depending on your taste) exploration of a neglected and self-sufficient man, who has little joy in his life aside from the occasional afternoon matinée (which he can’t even enjoy in peace). Stressed To Kill’s script is a far-fetched one to say the least but what it does manage to do, albeit in flashes, is tap into a certain level of frustration with life. It’s something that we can all relate to especially when you have one of those days (you know the ones I’m talking about… yeah lady you go ahead with your shopping cart full of stuff and I’ll just wait here with my Iced Coffee and Doritos, it’s totally fine). Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film, “Falling Down” starring Michael Douglas, is probably the most successful example of this particular type of narrative. In recent years films like “God Bless America” and “Buddy Hutchins” have attempted to do the same sort of thing, Stressed To Kill could be seen as on a par with those latter two.
Stressed To Kill is competently shot with most of the framing consistent, relying on close personal camera work to drive the drama. The audio track is crisp and clear and given this is an independent film with a lot of external scenes, that’s a feat in of itself. The color grading seems to have been left quite natural and it suits the setting, as does all the lighting. The score is primarily made up of Piano, something I didn’t think was going to work for the tone but surprisingly it keeps in theme with the distant lifestyle Bill leads. There’s also some effective violin to help up the intensity levels when Mr Lawrence decides it’s time to manage some stress. From the get go, the film jumps right into the deep end, showcasing Bill’s lack of patience and ever-growing disdain for those he crosses paths with during his day-to-day routine. The sad thing is that the circumstances he’s put in are totally relatable. Most of us have been put in similar situations at one point or another in our lives, the difference is, we don’t overreact because we know that’s just life (well most of us know…). Bill gets stuck in traffic due to incompetent road users, he ends up behind two women who have a thousand and one questions about a movie they may or may not be seeing, in turn making him miss the start of the movie.. and so it goes. Once inside the theater he can’t even enjoy the film because people are talking or constantly on their phones, something I know we can all agree happens way too often. There’s nothing quite like having an extremely suspenseful horror film ruined by pre-pubescent immaturity, manifesting itself in the form of nervous laughter, throwing of refreshments down the aisle and just all around buffoonery.
It’s not as though it’s just Bill’s leisure time being disrupted, even at work he’s dealing with the demanding schedule of his boss Mr Lee (Alvin Aki), as well as unnecessarily loud people talking on the phone, rude and selfish drivers and then there’s the tranquility of home. Bill’s stale relationship with wife Vera (played by Curtis) is at the point of no return, especially when he finds out what she’s been up to in her personal training job. Their daughter Ashley (Mary Krantz) comes home and ends up in the middle of it all, after having been fed half truth’s about Bill’s current condition. It’s an endless cycle of despondency that’s pretty much run its course and Bill’s only respite comes in the form of his long time friend, Stan (played by Hilton). Stan’s not exactly kicking goals, he’s been married and divorced several times and taken for a ride on a few other occasions. He’s still in the process of trying to keep his latest girl satisfied, despite Bill’s willingness to take care of the situation with his own brand of justice. Their friendship is a dysfunctional one but an important one regardless. Setting aside Oberst and Assante for a minute, performance wise the film is mostly solid. Curtis, as Bill’s wife, does a pretty good job of playing the shrew, Derek Roberts as a fellow police officer is believable and Mary Krantz is natural in what can only be described as a backseat role. Parnell plays Bill’s doctor, appearing in a couple of solid scenes and Lance Tafelski brings his A game, in what was a really brief but wonderful display of emotion through his character’s desperation. Actors/Actresses with minor parts in film could definitely take a page out of Tafelski’s book and what it means to give everything no matter how small the part. This is reminiscent of someone like James Duval, congrats my friend.
Bill Oberst and Armand Assante are clearly the two veterans on the scene here and both do a great job in their respective roles. Assante plays Paul Jordan, a somewhat eccentric cop on the tail of Bill, who he believes to be responsible for a recent string of murders. I’ve enjoyed Armand’s performances ever since “Tough Luck”, a film he did with Norman Reedus over 10 years ago. As for Oberst, he continues to prove what a talent he is in the industry. The quirks associated to the character are perfect for Bill’s look and feel. The evil smirk, the child like glee he displays when some happy accident occurs to one of those stress enhancers, it’s all very entertaining. Oberst just seems to love the process, it’s apparent in everything he does big or small and that’s why it’s so clear to me that he’s often the best part about his films, as is the case again here. You could question whether the mix of Black Comedy and Drama would suit him and no one would blame you, given he’s become somewhat of a Horror maestro in recent years. That being said, make no mistake about it, Bill’s bows got more strings than Robin Hoods. My favourite scenes involve Bill dressing up as an elderly lady in order to sneak into a women’s bathroom (knowing Bill I’m sure it’s something he got a kick out of and perhaps even his mother, if he could get her to watch this one haha) as well as him using the term “dickhead”, a common insult used in Australia but something you seldom hear in American films, so that was a nice touch.
Even with some of the nice piano ballads and violin to accentuate the random behavior displayed by Bill, there’s pieces of music that don’t quite fit. Most notably a dance track during a scene where Paul tries his best to convey naivety in regards to the situation with Bill. There’s a few other sequences that have odd music choices as well but that’s just down to your personal preferences I suppose. Script wise the dialogue isn’t always strong, though to be fair I don’t think the intent was necessarily a social commentary on human behavior. Using this platform to vent over the frustration in day-to-day life, yes, but I don’t believe there’s anything deeper here. Continuity wise the film is pretty good. Bill does replace a fire extinguisher in the same location of a hotel he visits earlier on. I’m not sure you’d be required to check on one for another 6 or 12 months (which the timeline of the film clearly doesn’t stretch across). It’s a very small thing but the daughter’s use of “Daddy” really annoyed me. Stressed To Kill isn’t the only movie I’ve seen where a grown female has referred to her father as “Daddy”, maybe it’s just an American thing or something because girls just don’t do that here, they’re adults. Savage and his sound department missed an opportunity to tinker and really highlight Bill’s level of stress. I think fade in’s and fade out’s in relation to people’s laughter, or chewing, or any number of those things they do that annoy us, could have worked well. The film may have also benefited from some close-ups and quick cuts to emphasize those irritating quirks from secondary characters.
I don’t like to single people out, especially if I’m doing so with a negative critique of something they’ve probably put a lot of work into but Marshal Hilton’s, “Stan”, was a difficult character to take. Now it’s not just because Hilton’s chipper performance comes out of left field because I get it, this character is irresponsible, unpredictable and in a way, a big kid who never grew up. Hilton’s tone sounds like that of the great Clint Eastwood, very distinctive but the line delivery is more like that of Robert Carradine’s. If you don’t know Robert he’s the one Carradine brother that’s always trying a little too hard. I’ve seen a couple of other films that Marshal’s been in and he’s been a lot better, so I’m going to notch it up to a melodramatic interpretation of what was on the page. Stressed To Kill has a certain amount of repetition about it, something that’s difficult to avoid when your anti-hero only has one or two means of killing. Bill wants to do the deed quick and painlessly (for the most part) so aside from one sequence displaying some practical effects, it’s all pretty tame stuff. Assante’s character arc is rather predictable as well. The key maneuver in his case against Bill can be seen coming a mile off. There’s a few scenes that don’t amount too much and the one character you hope see’s some swift justice, never really does (well kind of but I wouldn’t call it swift). So with that in mind, the run time could have been cut down by 15 minutes and the film wouldn’t have lost anything.
If I’m honest, “Stressed To Kill” only really caught my eye because of its promise of Oberst and Assante teaming up (so to speak). I hadn’t seen the trailer, I didn’t know much about it but I do my best to support all of Bill’s work because I know how much effort he puts into his craft. Parnell and Savage’s script is fun and somewhat relatable. They manage to avoid that kind of mean-spirited despair associated with lots of psychological films, in turn keeping this somewhat lighthearted. The production value is solid and all the technical aspects well conceived. I enjoyed a majority of the piano/violin score and there’s several funny and typical situations Bill finds himself in that audiences will get a kick out of. It will come as no surprise that the two strongest performances are from Bill and Armand. Assante isn’t give a lot to work with but he makes a particularly explosive scene with Oberst, his own. As for Bill, he’s as consistent as ever and notches up yet another credit to his ever-growing list on IMDB. I was a little disappointed that his character never went completely off the deep end, emotionally speaking. Those kind of outbursts are Bill’s bread and butter so why not showcase that? There were missed opportunities to do a bit more with sound design and a couple of minor plot point issues but that’s usually par for the course. The two aspects that may prevent viewers from revisiting Stressed To Kill are the predictable turns and the far-fetched nature of Bill’s friend “Stan”, combined with the depiction by Hilton. If you’re a fan of Bill Oberst you’re likely to have a bit of fun with this one, it’s currently playing on Amazon, ITunes and other various digital platforms. Check out the trailer below.
My review for “Stressed To Kill” is 5/10