While anyone can insert their influences into their art, it’s something else entirely when the creation stands on its own. Writer/director Kirill Sokolov is open about his fondness for directors Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), and it’s completely visible through every inch of his feature debut Why Don’t You Just Die!. Yet, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel authentic and unique. Sokolov didn’t just study the “masters” to imitate, but to truly understand their work thematically and technically. Perhaps that’s why the utterly mayhem-filled WDYJD! Is simultaneously absolutely irreverent and dead serious, the end result being a darkly hilarious trip through family and greed.
Set almost entirely in one location, the story centers on Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) who is convinced by his girlfriend, Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde), to kill her father, Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev). Her reasons are personal and his desire to help is pure; however, what should be a simple act of love-driven revenge goes horribly wrong as Matvey is entirely outmatched almost as soon as he enters Andrey’s apartment. As the two men vie for control, Matvey learns that things are more complicated than he imagined and there’s no way out but through.
There’re three bits right off the start that tell you want kind of film you’re in for. The first is the almost midi-sounding score that plays over the opening credits. It’s slow, yet up-beat, tossing off beeps playfully over the producing and distribution credits. Then, we’re told it’s the present and a quote is offered from Irish author Flann O’Brien: “He did not live to know who the winner was.” These three things tell us that that the events may be serious but never dour, time is an illusion to be molded at the pleasure of the narrative, and that vengeance is a terrible thing coming at personal cost. Elegantly set up before a single line of dialogue comes into play, Sokolov is almost daring the audience to forget that violence for the sake of violence isn’t just. Considering the barrels of Karo syrup Sokolov and his team used up in the making of WDYJD!, they’re clearly tempting the audience to forget, to just go with the flow of the violence as it escalates further and further.
Amid all the carnage, the playfulness running throughout the mayhem-filled WDYJD! appears in costuming, the performances, the music, the direction, and even in the locations. It’s not that WDYJD! is an outright comedy, though it is darkly hilarious, it’s that WDYJD! is aware of the hyperreality required to tell the kind of timeline-hopping, semi-ultraviolent, absurdly kinetic story that serves as the scaffolding. In the costuming, it’s represented in Matvey’s Batman hoodie. The DC Comics hero is a masked vigilante who metes out justice in order to keep people safe by doing the dirty work that no one else can do in order to stay on the right side of the law. It’s more than a little apropos that Matvey would wear such a garment and would be easily forgotten if not for Matvey’s first spoken dialogue: “One, two, three, evil won’t touch me.” It is ridiculous to hear, but it’s also a bit of a rally cry, while cluing in the audience that Matvey sees himself as the just fighting against the wicked. These are themes that have appeared in Sokolov’s favorite directors’ films and he weaves these notions in and out with impressive dexterity. In terms of the butchery, much like a Scorsese picture, the violence heaped upon the characters is realistic in delivery, but, in taking from Tarantino, the reaction to violence is overblown and unrealistic. Take the initial fight between Matvey and Andrey that takes place before the title card appears: the two men exchange blows in a dramatically escalating fashion that feels profoundly human as each struggles to use what’s around them to subdue the other. It’s comical to observe as their desperation grows, but when one or the other strikes, the comedy ceases as the blood pours from head wounds, facial lacerations, and last-ditch bites. There is no possible way that any of the fighters in WDYJD! could sustain consciousness with such extreme blood loss (Tarantino), but it makes for an incredibly entertaining struggle of wills (Leone). For those of you interested in the blood-letting, Sokolov gives you plenty of that and never in gratuitous or unnecessary ways. In fact, there’s a profound discomfort that comes from the expectation Sokolov creates of violence of what we the audience *thinks* will happen versus what does. That push-pull of expectation and actualization is part of why even the quieter moments keep the audience mesmerized and on the edge of their seats, or, in the case of this reviewer, bouncing off the couch and turning away from the tv out of sheer horror for what I thought was to come.
Even if the bloody violence is what pulls you in, what keeps you there is everything around it. Sokolov crafted a film with significant layers and each one plays a part. The music, for instance, is a strange unnamed character in the film. There’s the opening music, a midi-sounding score that plays over the initial credits and frequently returns at odd moments of the film. (Those happy beeps I mentioned before.) Later, something akin to an amalgam of Irish folk, klezmer, and punk rock underscores the scuffles; while something akin to an Ennio Morricone tune plays when things get truly tense. They are disparate styles to be sure, yet they work so beautifully with the visual, narrative, and performative elements as to bolster the emotional response from the audience. Watching a handcuffed individual struggle, rise, fall, struggle more, and rise again as they seek purchase in an enclosed space while a Morricone-esque song plays, is at once a scene of great hilarity due to the physical comedy at play and one of heightened tension made grander by the music. If the Irish folk-klezmer-punk rock signifies unbridled chaos, then the other underscores the power of will in the face of great personal harm.
Why Don’t You Just Die! is memorable for a variety of reasons, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s perfect. A downside to the high-octane opening is there then comes a deep drop in excitement in order to better understand what happened to put Matvey on his path of vengeance. This inadvertently lulls the audience as adrenaline wanes. Additionally, the narrative finds itself growing more complicated in its effort to keep things simple, requiring a great deal of steps to move away from the opening events before it ramps back up to a particularly magnificent end.
At the time of this review, none of the special features were available and cannot be commented on in terms of their content beyond the description. Needless to say, Why Don’t You Just Die! is an unforgettable cinematic treat and the features included in the home release are likely to expound on the delight. There’s an interview with author and critic Kim Newman exploring the film, behind the scenes footage of the making of the film, the four short films Sokolov made before WDYJD!, as well as some storyboard content. Frankly, considering the layers upon layers of physical and philosophical work Sokolov put into his feature debut, digging in a bit more with these features sounds like it would only sweeten the experience.
Why Don’t You Just Die! Special Features
- High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
- Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
- Optional English subtitles
- Brand new interview with author and critic Kim Newman, exploring Why Don’t You Just Die! within the context of the long-standing tradition of single location cinema
- Exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from rehearsals and the film set
- Four short films by Kirill Sokolov: Could Be Worse, The Outcome, The Flame and the award-winning Sisyphus is Happy (Best Director and Gold Frame awards, 2013 Unprecedented Cinema International Festival of Short Film)
- Theatrical trailer
- Kirill Sokolov’s complete original storyboard for the film (BD-ROM content)
- Reversible sleeve featuring two choices of artwork
Available on digital in the U.S. beginning April 20th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray in the U.S. via Arrow US beginning April 21st, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.