The recent rise of Russian genre cinema has been difficult to miss, even so Kirill Sokolov's Why Don't You Just Die! [Papa, Sdokhni] is a bit of an outlier. It's a film that mixes various genres, adds its unique signature and does so with a surprising amount of cheek and glee. It took me a while to get around to this film, though I can't really remember why exactly, this is after all one of those films that looks like it's right up my alley. I am delighted that I finally made the effort, projects like these don't come around that often, and it's always a joy to see them executed with the proper flair.
Watching Why Don't You Just Die, it's hard not to be reminded of the work of some other prominent directors. The early work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in particular looks to be a good reference point, with its darkly caricatural characters and colorful, bold visuals. The biggest difference is that Sokolov's film isn't all that fantastical, instead, it takes on the guise of a single-location crime flick (The Wachowski's Bound and Katsuhito Ishii's Party 7 come to mind). As for the comedy, that felt more Ritchie than Tarantino, but that's probably because I'm not a big fan of the latter.
The biggest surprise for me was the overarching vibe of the film. While it's overbearingly Russian still, Sokolov seems to have gotten rid of the grimness that tends to dominate Russian cinema. While that can be very cinematic in its own right, it's nice to see a bit more range, especially from Russian genre cinema. Though the comedy is still quite bleak and dark, there's an amount of glee and joy that betrays a director having a lot of fun playing around with genre elements, creating a film that doesn't necessarily feels obliged to reflect the human psyche, but can simply be great entertainment in its own right.
The plot revolves around Matvei, a young simpleton who is deeply in love with Olya, a struggling actress. When one night she opens up to him and tells Matvei about the abuse she suffered from Andrei, her father, he doesn't have to think twice about Olya's request to get rid of him. Actually executing the murder will turn out to be a lot more challenging, as Olya's dad is a hardened police detective who doesn't mind a bit of physical torture to get what he wants. When Matvei arrives at Andrei's apartment, Andrei is suspicious from the get go, and their clunky conversation doesn't exactly help to relieve the tension.
The fact that the locations are quite limited is something Solokov uses to his full advantage. Having fewer locations simply means more detail and finish for each of the locations present in the film. The decors are minutely constructed, each object feels deliberately picked and positioned, the camera angles are spot on and the color story is meticulous. Add the nifty camera work, slick editing and a handful of standout moments, and you have a film that looks smart and appealing without the need for a major budget or overly elaborate constructs.
The music is used to great effect too. The main theme (a rather cheesy electronic pop/dance tune) rears its head whenever things are about to heat up, the use of false positives adds greatly to the comedic effect. The soundtrack is mostly used to give the film a fake sense of cool, not everybody may like or even pick up on its ironic use, but for Solokov it's just another tool in his arsenal to put cheeky comedy into a core crime thriller. It's always nice when a soundtrack is an integral part of the experience, and Why Don't You Just Die benefits greatly from this approach.
The cast is small, but that's a given for this type of film. The casting is spot on though. Either the actors did a splendid job adapting to their characters, or the casting crew made some excellent calls. Vitaliy Khaev has the best part as the grumpy father, he's so thoroughly oldskool Russian that it's hard not to laugh at his misadventures. The rest of the cast is really on point too, bravely but listlessly keeping up appearances while wallowing in their miserable fate. They all hit the notes needed to make this is a successful dark comedy, which is something I hadn't quite seen from Russian cinema before.
The biggest challenge for Solokov was to keep things interesting after the banging opener. The first crescendo comes pretty quickly, which means there's quite a lot of time left and not that much physical nor narrative distance to cover. Some successful flashbacks and an additional character turned out to be more than sufficient to keep the film going. I never got the feeling the film was stretched thin to reach a specified runtime, though the middle part probably could've used another highlight or two. It isn't until the finale that Solokov goes all out again.
Why Don't You Just Die is a very welcome addition to the blossoming niche of Russian genre cinema. It has everything to become an international cult hit, and it's well on its way to do exactly that. The colorful and vibrant cinematography, the hilarious soundtrack and the spot-on performances all feed the darkly comedic and grotesque atmosphere that adds flavor to a pretty basic crime story. It's a delightful film that left me with a face-wide smirk, but it may require a little effort to get your hands on the film, so make sure you don't miss out when the chance presents itself.