By Billy Huntsman
If you were to look up Rotten Tomatoes’ or The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the 2014 film Kill Me Three Times, currently available on Netflix streaming, you will surely notice two similarities between the two: both refer to the film as “derivative.”
That word, meaning something imitative of another thing, has a negative connotation. But what distinguishes “derivative” from “influenced by”?
Take this snippet from The Reporter’s review: “This derivative smoothie appears to have been made by putting Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and the Coen Brothers into a blender along with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. The brash result squanders a talented cast, sharp visuals and spectacular locations on a grisly trail of mayhem that rarely yields much mirth.”
Let’s examine the Tarantino reference, because Tarantino is the most fun and likely the most recognizable name in the above paragraph. They say Kill Me Three Times is derivative of the works of Tarantino, a filmmaker who voted for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as one of the top 10 films ever made in a 2012 British Film Institute Sight & Sound Poll. GBU was directed by Sergio Leone, an Italian filmmaker who made many Westerns and essentially invented the genre of spaghetti western.
Compare Leone’s Westerns to Tarantino’s 2012 effort Django Unchained. Are there not similarities?
But critics do not say Django is derivative of GBU, nor that Tarantino is derivative of Leone. They merely say Tarantino and Django were influenced by Leone.
At the same time as I would say the negative connotations of “derivative” should be reevaluated and then abolished, I would say Kill Me Three Times is a good film because it’s derivative of the like of Tarantino.
Let’s sum up KM3X’s plot: private investigator/hitman Charlie (Simon Pegg) is hired by a wealthy motel owner to follow his wife because he believes (correctly) she is having an affair. Once the affair is confirmed, the motelier orders Charlie to kill her, which he does not have the opportunity to do before the motelier’s sister and brother-in-law step into the picture.
The plot is revealed nonlinearly, making it difficult to sum up without fear of spoiling, much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Come to think of it, Irreversible is derivative of Memento, which is derivative of Pulp Fiction, which is derivative of His Girl Friday, which was based on a stage play, which art form is entirely derivative of the works of Shakespeare, who primarily derived his works from the folklore of Ancient Britain, Rome, and Western Europe, as well as from the Bible, whose stories bear some striking resemblances to Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism—do you see what a deep, dark, kaleidoscoping rabbit hole “derivative’s” negative connotations leads you down?
It must be understood that being derivative is not akin to being bad. Cormac McCarthy’s prose is derivative of Hemingway and Faulkner, the latter of whom was derivative of Joyce, while McCarthy’s narratives are derivative of Faulkner, L’Amour, Twain, among others. Though derivative, McCarthy has won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, a James Tait Black Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award (and rightfully so).
Likewise, while I do not think KM3X is likely to win any Oscars, it is still a strong and thoroughly enjoyable dark comedy.
The writing is ambitious, reminiscent perhaps of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects script, an admirable but wholly frustrating and unrewarding film. But KM3X is not unrewarding. In fact, the ease with which each scene and character action follows another is reassuring of the fact there are still people in the film industry who give a damn, about art, about quality, about storytelling.
I’ve been on a Simon Pegg-binge of late, and have come to the conclusion—after watching Hector and the Search for Happiness, Burke & Hare, and rewatching Hot Fuzz—that he is a great underrated actor, as so many great actors are.
His penchant for dark comedy and serious delivery make KM3X both humorous and dramatic, particularly the third act, in which all the dark elements of the film come to fruition, and it’s only Pegg’s impeccable humor that keeps the film from morphing into a Christopher Nolan film (don’t misunderstand: I love Nolan, but such an ending as his Insomnia would not fit KM3X).
KM3X is not a satire—as satire is inherently a-dramatic—nor is the film at all bad. The only thing it could be guilty of is wearing its influences on its sleeve. God knows more trenchant criticism has been leveled at other, lesser films.