A few years ago, Velvet Buzzsaw attempted to satirize the art world on a canvas of dark comedy and murder, but even with that title its insights were pretty dull. At least Nicol Paone’s The Kill Room has a few more laughs to offer, a sharper comparison between the art world and underworld, and a cast that would make Quentin Tarantino jealous. I mean, this film wins just for giving us Samuel L. Jackson as a Jewish crimelord and bakery owner who speaks Yiddish for the entire movie. We get to hear him utter “Oy gevalt!”, although I have to admit it would be much funnier if he not only had a head of payot sidelocks but a pair of glocks in his hands.
The film also features Uma Thurman as Patrice, owner of a struggling art gallery that has been blown away by unscrupulous dealers who will do anything to make the sale. Their corruption is right out in the open, selling to whoever whether they give a damn about the art or not. Patrice prefers to do things the right away, even if it means the smaller talent she wants to promote, such as local artist Grace (played by Thurman’s daughter, Maya Hawke) get overlooked.
Being surrounded by the sliding ethics of her peers, the Adderall-snorting Patrice can’t help but get down in the muck, too. Out of desperation, she hooks up with Gordon (Jackson) who has a mob scheme to launder money through her gallery. It involves her snobby clients paying huge sums of money for rather terrible art cooked up by hulking assassin, Reggie (Joe Manganiello). Shocker; Reggie’s art becomes incredibly popular and soon everybody wants a piece from “The Bagman”, even if this sudden fame draws a lot of unwanted attention.
In the opening sequence, we see Reggie’s calling card; choking out a target using common grocery bags. As the victim is dragged away screaming, his shoes leave scuff marks in the floor; with the scene fading away to the brush strokes of a piece art that somebody will probably overpay for. So you get the level of the critique here. Both the art world and the criminal underworld are shady businesses full of phonies who will do anything for money and clout. The genuine art lovers are getting boxed out by collectors who aren’t in this for an appreciation for the craft, but because they believe owning a valuable piece means they are themselves valuable. Sure, this level of insight is probably a touch outdated, but it still scans as accurate and ripe material to be poked at.
The Kill Room does feel like a movie from an earlier generation; like it belongs next to the wave of Get Shorty knockoffs from the late ’90s and early 2000s. The mix of violence and comedy plays at the same level, so when we see Reggie do what he does best we don’t actually register it as murder. Likewise, Patrice agreeing to work with killers becomes just another day in the cutthroat world of high-value art pieces. It makes for an amusing tone but not an especially memorable one. Paone’s background is in comedy, so it makes sense when the film starts to turn more in that direction, and she definitely has the cast for it.
Jackson and Thurman are perfect together, and it’s easy to see that they are friends in real life. Paone told me it was Thurman who got Jackson onto the film, with the Gordon character being rewritten for him. While they didn’t actually share scenes together in Pulp Fiction, their comedic chemistry is on point. Frankly, both are hamming it up just enough without going overboard. Gordon and Patrice somehow manage to make sense in this crazy, heightened world they’re living in, rather than feeling like imposters in it. Manganiello’s physicality and understated magnetism are used to great effect when Reggie begins taking on the beleaguered traits of a tortured artist. There are so many talented folks that you wish there was enough time to spend with them. Hawke’s role is fairly one-note and limited, while Debi Mazar maximizes her time as a snooty art critic whose word can make or break an artist. WWE fans tuning in to see popular superstar Liv Morgan will need to keep their eyes peeled. Manganiello
The Kill Room is far from a masterpiece, but Thurman, Jackson, and Manganiello guide the broad comedic brush strokes in entertaining fashion.
The Kill Room streams on digital and VOD beginning November 3rd.