[This is a slightly modified re-post of my review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Violet & Daisy opens today in limited release.]
The concept of an adorable female assassin is nothing new. I’m pretty sure that at least half of all anime is based on this premise. The appeal is that you juxtapose wide-eyed innocence and blood-drenched experience. However, it’s an idea that’s been done to near-death (see: anime, +50%) and I was curious to see how Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) would handle adorable-assassins in his directorial debut, Violet & Daisy. Fletcher has delivered a script was tons of potential for a fun action-comedy that doesn’t blow the genre apart, but manages to do a solid job of staying playful and upbeat with the talented Saoirse Ronan and James Gandolfini selling the dramatic aspects of the story. Unfortunately, Fletcher is constantly hamstrung by his lack of experience, budgetary constraints, and Alexis Bledel‘s lackluster performance.
Fletcher gets Violet & Daisy off on the right foot by establishing its heightened reality as the title characters dress up like nuns delivering pizza and take out a room full of goons. Violet (Bledel) is the more experienced of the duo and she’s got some tragedy in her past that keeps her defenses up. Daisy (Ronan) is the rookie who looks up to her partner and the two girls take contract jobs so they can pay the rent and buy Barbie Sunday dresses. In their spare time they play patty-cake.
Eager to buy the latest Barbie Sunday outfits, Violet and Daisy take a supposedly easy job where they’re supposed to knock off Michael (James Gandolfini), a guy who stole a truck-full of cologne and cash from their boss. The job isn’t as easy as billed because the target wants to be killed, and the girls must fend off other hitters, find ammo, and confront their feelings about murdering a guy with such a sweet disposition.
Violet & Daisy gets two-thirds of the way to where it needs to be. The script is silly enough to be charming but not so slight that you can’t invest in the characters. The further the film gets away from reality the better it works because if we come back down to Earth, Violet and Daisy are nothing but a couple of giggling psychopaths. If you recast them into a world where working as an assassin is treated the same as working at the Gap, then we can accept their actions.
Fletcher keeps brushing up against the tone he needs for the movie, but he has to struggle mightily against his inexperience and low-budget. There’s a visually impressive dream sequence, a fun tangent where Violet talks about how she ended up with a police badge, and other moments where the direction matches the lunacy of the story. But there’s too much of the story that’s grounded. The cinematography needs to pop, the editing needs to be more madcap, and some neat special effects wouldn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, the overuse of the Michael’s apartment (and it’s a small set that never holds more than seven characters) heavily implies that Fletcher didn’t have the money to provide the technical flourishes his movie needed.
At least he had Ronan and Gandolifini. This is the second time Ronan has played an assassin, but Daisy is a 180 from Hanna. Ronan brings a bubbly, delightful, and slightly naïve charm to the character and she can flip to the dramatic side of Daisy without missing a beat. She’s also got a great partner by sharing the screen with Gandolfini. Daisy and Michael spend the majority of their scenes together, and Gandolifni is so sweet that you almost forget he was Tony Soprano. But everything Ronan and Gandolfini are able to bring to the screen, Bledel can’t manage to conjure. Her performance is flat, she doesn’t have chemistry with her co-stars, and her only advantage is that she looks the part.
One day, a director should try to remake Violet & Daisy and unlock its full potential. The script isn’t amazing and could use a little more balance between the comedy and the drama, but it’s got enough energy and heart to overcome its well-worn premise and obvious juxtaposition. What it needs is three strong lead performances instead of only two, and enough money and creativity to bring the story’s offbeat world to life.