One way to discuss the content era we find ourselves in is to frame “content” as the antithesis of true “art.” The latter serves to arrest us aesthetically, to move us emotionally, to transmute the experiences and perspectives of the creator so that they may gain new life in the imagination of the audience. “Content,” on the other hand, has no such noble purposes. “Content” is denatured and digestible, aiming to engage simply and uncritically all in service of the mighty dollar. In his 2019 essay clarifying his appraisal of Marvel films, Martin Scorsese used the terms “audiovisual entertainment” and “cinema” to describe what he saw as the defining binary in the world of film today. These big, bad audiovisually entertaining tentpoles, sequels, and IP retreads are crowding out the good stuff: both the acclaim-seeking works of auteurs and the narrative-driven, middle- and small-budget efforts that made careers, saved careers, and packed in a lot of fun in their own right.
Nicol Paone’s The Kill Room is a film of the latter sort. Efficient and original crime comedies seem harder to come by these days, unless you’re willing to dig up some filler from a streaming service’s bottomless library. The Kill Room can feel like a film from a previous era: a moment when up-and-coming directors had more opportunities to collaborate with name-brand talent on projects not slated for buzzy festival runs, but rather for modest theatrical stops where perhaps achieving sleeper hit status was on the table. It’s a pleasant surprise to report that The Kill Room has all the sleeper-hit ingredients and deploys them to winning effect. The cast is game; the jokes are crude, cutting, and consistent; the script neatly dishes out commentary without demanding too much of the viewer’s brainpower. Best of all, The Kill Room is very much a movie aware of our content-heavy present, wading into the discourse with a charming wink.
Uma Thurman plays Patrice, a floundering art dealer struggling to keep her gallery’s lights on. Through a mutual acquaintance, she ends up coming into contact with Gordon (Samuel L. Jackson), a wisecracking, faux-Jewish gangster who runs a bakery to front his criminal operation. Gordon’s a package deal with Reggie (Joe Manganiello), a gruff, reserved hitman with a heart of gold. Gordon approaches Patrice with a laundering scheme where he would supply her with artworks and dirty cash for her to legitimize for a fee through her business. Reggie, going by “The Bagman,” generates the pieces. His art ends up taking the art world by storm, earning him and Patrice both wanted and unwanted attention.
By no means does The Kill Room break the mold (though it does boast an appealing bit of a riotous spirit). One can point to other films that play more with genre conventions or feature more probing character arcs, and on these two fronts, The Kill Room is indeed relatively run-of-the-mill. The first half breezes by — to the point scenes can almost feel abruptly cut — establishing the players, basic relationships, and the plot mechanics. The second half slows things down, with Reggie in particular getting more focus that either deepens or sanitizes his character depending on your perspective. At times, the dialogue can teeter over from nimble to knotty, and the humor bats at the same average as current-day SNL B-material. What keeps The Kill Room humming, then, are the constant snipes at and asides about the culture around us, from New York Times critics to NFT scams. Chief among the film’s contentions is that the art world, stripped of the pedigree and finery, is really one big, organized grift. There is some Adam McKay-esque satirical energy at play here, apparent in snatches of Patrice’s dialogue where she enters art world-explainer mode to provide the other characters (and the viewer) a snappily thorough peek under the hood. That, mixed with the embellished, eat-the-rich energy that fueled crowd-pleasers such as The Menu and The White Lotus, is what propels the fun. The lack of self-seriousness doesn’t hamper the critiques, but lets the viewer feel in on the joke. It’s what allows the sleazy core characters to come off as loveable rogues, manipulating a market so puffed up on self-importance that it deserves to be dunked on.
The Kill Room is not an art film, but it is a film poking fun at the ridiculousness of the art world and the malleability of what even constitutes “art.” The Kill Room is not content in its most pejorative sense, though it certainly can be enjoyed on a surface level and in certain ways feels like it was engineered with that in mind. Yet, in a way, Paone’s film sidesteps this dichotomy we’ve built and in its narrative posits something bleaker. We don’t — or don’t just — live in a world where art opposes content. Rather, our world is one where even the “highest” of art is consumed as content, where our aesthetically, historically, and morally edifying experience with art is just another brand of experience along with the rest, all vying for our attention in this attention economy. The Bagman’s artworks rocket into superstardom purely due to their novelty. These artsy elites are enamored by his raw, inchoate workmanship, the snatches of which we see evoking Jackson Pollock’s action painting technique. His pieces astound them, frighten them, disgust them, arouse them, his work conceptually abstract so as to provide space for whatever head-canon they project onto his finished canvases. It’s hilarious and revealing: the desire for authentic experience in a world of distraction leading to desperate attempts at crowning new masters. But the “authenticity” is the commodity. No longer radical or transformative, “authenticity” can now be safely attained for the right price. What the art and criminal worlds share, The Kill Room suggests, is that there’s much money to be made once you discard the soul.
DIRECTOR: Nicole Paone; CAST: Uma Thurman, Joe Manganiello, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Hawke; DISTRIBUTOR: Shout! Studios; IN THEATER: September 29; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.