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“The Kill Room” opens with a hulking Reggie (Joe Manganiello) walking down the street listening to a true crime podcast. He enters a bodega to complain about a bad cup of coffee, only for the combative owner to tell him to shove off. Reggie chokes the owner to the ground, and the skid marks from his heels, as the man struggles to breathe, fades into a painting with similar broad strokes. It’s a clunky beginning that gives way to even clunkier early plotting. But sophomore director Nicol Paone’s “The Kill Room,” a comedically broad critique of the art world through a crime-thriller lens, does get better.
It finds some footing when Gordon (Samuel L. Jackson), a Black Jewish deli and bakery owner in league with the mob, approaches Patrice (Uma Thurman) with a tantalizing offer: His lumbering assassin, Reggie, will make paintings purely for a high valuation as a means for money laundering. All she has to do is keep the art at her gallery and make sure it isn’t actually sold. In return, she gets a sizable cut. The deal is too good for the cash-strapped Patrice, who’s on the verge of losing her gallery and all of her clients, to turn down. But after her intern publicly shares photos of the art, the paintings become a sensation in the art world. Soon, everyone demands to buy the works of the artist Patrice called The Bagman.
As a critique of the art business, “The Kill Room” exceeds “Velvet Buzzsaw” in its incisiveness. We discover that Patrice’s gallery struggles because she believes in quality and ethics over pure profit: She looks down on paying for reviews, relying on paid marketing, or putting up with misogynistic male artists. “When you make big sales, you have the power to control the narrative,” she explains to her intern. In contrast, in other scenes, we see rival dealers bragging about selling to arms dealers, to the son of an African dictator, and a Russian oligarch. Because they’re willing to not just bend but ignore the rules, Patrice is now at such a disadvantage she begins to sand down her ethics, too.
The upright Patrice, of course, doesn’t initially know The Bagman’s actual job. She thinks he’s probably a drug dealer, a flaw she can overlook if it’ll save her business, but nothing as grim as being a hired gun. We do see some of Reggie’s handiwork. But often, the fractured way his murderous scenes are shot is far too mannered, tying its tone with the cross-cut editing employed by Gillian L. Hutshing to bring viewers in connection to the art world. The film, of course, wants to equate the viciousness between these disparate spheres as alike. But that intertwining declaws the underworld half of the film. If the violence were pushed, the critique of the art environment wouldn’t solely rely on broad comedy but visceral comedy too.
Still, the work of the film's main cast is sturdy and wonderful. Thurman, in particular, who starts shaky—her first scene sniffing Adderall is way overacted—soon finds an easy comfort level. In her and Jackson’s sort of on-screen reunification (they didn’t actually share a scene in “Pulp Fiction”), the two veteran actors raise their game by not solely relying on their usual bag of tricks found in their familiar star personas. Here, despite the inherent silliness of their parts, they portray charming, flawed people in a heightened universe rather than cartoon people running amok in a cartoon world. If that were all “The Kill Room” offered—movie stars simply having fun in each other’s company—that would be enough.
And yet, Paone’s film also offers a satisfying finale—a piece of bloodlust performance art—that takes a big bite out of craven dealers and caustic collectors compelled by fads, scarcity, auteurism, and capitalism. While the killer with a heart of gold trope works to varying degrees, mostly because of Manganiello’s unvarnished presence, the thematic heft of “The Kill Room” is enough to make it an intriguing and entertaining early work.
Now playing in theaters.
Uma Thurman as Patrice
Samuel L. Jackson as Gordon
Joe Manganiello as Reggie
Maya Hawke as Grace
Debi Mazar as The Kimono
Dree Hemingway as Anika
Larry Pine as Dr. Galvinson