Dead in a Week at EIFF: ‘existential hitman comedy’
Tom Edmunds’ Dead in a Week is the rare EIFF film that would do exceedingly well at general release. It’s a real crowd-pleaser: madcap, hilarious, and unpredictable – safe enough to be comforting, but out-there enough to be exciting. It has a perfect pace too: 90 minutes straight of entertainment.
William (Aneurin Barnard) is tired of life. He’s tired of death too – having tried to kill himself seven times (ten, he tells us, if you count the cries for help). Part-time, he’s a struggling writer whose autobiographical novel has been proclaimed too dense by mainstream publishers; full time, he’s an inactive lifeguard at a local leisure centre. An ironic profession perhaps, but he’s only saved one struggling lady in the last year (and she was in the shallow end). One evening, whilst hanging off a bridge, William meets Leslie (Tom Wilkinson), an ageing hitman who’s taken to becoming a “one-man euthanasia clinic”. “Have you ever been to Switzerland?”, he asks William, “Well, now you’ll never have to”. Leslie has been pressured by his boss (Christopher Eccleston) at The Guild of Assassins: Eastern European hitmen are taking over the business (ha), and he’s instated minimum kill quotas that must be maintained, or else he’ll lose his job. William hires Leslie to do the job for him, being told that within a week the deed will be done, yet a meeting with publishing house editor Ellie (Freya Mavor) leaves him reconsidering the offer. Leslie isn’t so keen to break his contract.
The real genius of Dead in a Week is its characterisation. William is our main protagonist but we also follow Leslie through his domestic life and get to know him too. The almost 50/50 approach to these two characters produces a film that feels a lot more well-rounded and satisfying than one that portrays the hitman as a cold, mysterious character. The script is smart enough to illuminate Leslie in a way that lays bare his motivations and future dreams for the audience to understand, and, often support.
Any killer comedy lives or dies by its humour, and Dead in a Week wastes no time, cramming jokes and sight-gags into every corner of the frame. This is a film that starts funny, and only gets funnier as time goes on. Comedy is even embedded into its narrative structure. Much to my amusement, Edmunds manages to wring dramatic tension out of a cushion sewing competition (or is it embroidery, who knows?). In a busy-ish 9am critic screening, laughter was almost omnipresent, and the comic timing of the cast (especially Wilkinson) is impeccable.
It has its flaws: sometimes the ‘hah lol life is shit let’s kill ourselves’ schtick can be grating. Ellie, in particular, feels like a stereotype from 2006, and it’s true that the narrative rarely surprises. But these minor issues are far outweighed by the positives. It’s not as sharp as McDonagh, but Dead in a Week reminded me, several times, of In Bruges: an existential hitman comedy set in a small town, populated by sharp, laugh-out loud humour. That’s a comparison to be proud of.