What if little girls were hired assassins? That’s not an uncommon film scenario today, but usually the answer is that they’d be well-trained, bred to be killers from early on and void of most stereotypes you associate with normal young women. Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass and the title teenager from Hanna come to mind. But Violet & Daisy takes a different approach. The girls here are really “girly.” They take on hit jobs in order to buy pretty dresses. They blow bubble gum bubbles while shooting up mob hideouts. They talk all cutesy and have flowery code names and play patty-cake with their boss (Danny Trejo) and ride a tricycle and love milk and cookies and say “ewwwwww” in response to things they find gross as if they’re referring to cooties.
I’m kind of surprised to learn this movie isn’t based on a manga series, something like “Gunslinger Girl” or “Young Gun Carnaval.” Instead it’s an original script from Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for his first film writing job, adapting Precious (based on the novel by Sapphire). He now makes his directorial debut with his sophomore screenplay, and it’s hardly a follow-up that will have him garnering more awards. Not because it’s bad; it’s just really cartoony, as in artificial, two-dimensional and rather childish. To give you an idea of the level of quirkiness to be found, after offing some thugs, the title anti-heroines (respectively played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan) gleefully partake in something called “the internal bleeding dance,” where they hop up and down on the bodies to make the blood squirt out. They’re sick-minded sweeties.
Imagine this: someone gives Quentin Tarantino a Saturday morning cartoon starring a kiddie animated version of the filmmaker — like what Bobby’s World was for Howie Mandel or Little Rosey for Roseanne Barr — and on this cartoon we got to see what kinds of movies this “Kid Quentin” would devise. Violet & Daisy is a lot like what I imagine those spoofs would be, still quite violent and profane yet also sort of adorable. The movie even opens with a sequence that must be inspired by the foot massage monologue from Pulp Fiction; here Violet tells Daisy a punchline-driven anecdote involving a doctor who sleeps with his patients (I won’t give it away) as they venture through an apartment building on the way to their latest targets. Instead of suits and skinny ties, they’re dressed as nuns while also pretending to be delivering pizzas. If that’s not silly enough, later Violet slips on a banana peel.
There is a story beyond the “what if?” set up, and it’s another question of a situation. What if these girly hit girls got to know one of their marks too well and then had trouble taking care of business? This is “why they don’t name pigs at a sausage farm,” Violet says. And that’s one of many instances in which a motif relating animals and humans comes into play — another time they discuss the need to shoot efficiently so they don’t kill a caged bird. It’s all part of their warped, immature perspective on what they do. James Gandolfini plays the nice guy who owns the bird and gets his would-be killers to warm up to him. Obviously they comfort him about his own estranged young daughter. Rounding out the main cast is Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar nominee for Secrets & Lies), who plays another, much older assassin willing to finish the job if the two partners can’t.
A lot of the problems with Violet & Daisy seem bigger in the context of who the players are. It would just seem like any old debut feature, something that would normally premiere at Sundance instead of Toronto (where the film initially dropped to an underwhelmed reception in 2011), but it’s made by someone who already has an Academy Award right out of the gate. That’s not all the audience has trouble ignoring. Ronan already just played the teen girl assassin in Hanna, though she is very different here, more green, more polite, more “aww shucks” and “swell” in her manner of speaking. And even Gandolfini is playing a familiar role, having recently done the father-figure-to-a-gold-hearted-teen-professional thing in Welcome to the Rileys, and he’s much better there, partly because the film called for a genuinely dramatic performance.
Still, neither he nor any of the other onscreen talent fails to give this their best. Bledel and Ronan are appealing enough given that they are mostly leading a shtick. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of their characters, especially since Violet has a complexity to her personality and background that is teased but never fleshed out, and in general their world feels bigger than what we’re given. That’s possibly just a fault of Fletcher, who goes overboard with the sweet-corn goofiness of the script’s tone but doesn’t really give us much of a visual parallel. There’s lots of style in the writing and very little in the directing, and in the end the movie suffers from seeming like something he was excited about at the start and then eventually was just slogging through to get it out in the world.
As usual, the over the top, quirky hit man thing is an acquired taste, or just something that won’t ever work with certain viewers’ palettes. Even when they’re far more brilliantly scripted than this (see Grosse Pointe Blank, In Bruges, Shoot ‘em Up). Unfortunately, there’s just no recommending Violet & Daisy to everyone, but it’s the sort of thing that will attract a certain audience and that audience will really like it, if not love it. But I don’t want to say it has “cult” potential, just niche appeal. I definitely wanted more from the film, but I dug it just fine.
The Upside: Some amusing scenarios are offered with the conceit; all the actors are enjoyable; you can’t go too wrong with a killing spree scored to Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” and having Danny Trejo playing clapping games.
The Downside: Too cutesy for its own good; the tone and writing style will not work for a lot of people; it seems like it lost a lot of scenes in the edit.
On the Side: Carey Mulligan was originally set to play Violet and Bruce Willis was once in talks for Gandolfini’s role.