Violet & Daisy: Toronto Review

An ambitious but not wholly successful directorial debut by the writer behind the Precious film.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher makes his directing debut with an unexpected story, starring Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan as hit girls.

Violet & Daisy is a meditation on love, friendship and death told in a surreal fable ostensibly about a pair of teenage girl assassins. The film’s writer-director, Geoffrey Fletcher, came to everyone’s attention when he penned the screenplay for Precious. So when you win an Oscar, you get to do a pet project such as Violet & Daisy. Fletcher is not at the stage as a film artist to be able to pull off a venture this ambitious, but the film contains a number of fine moments when the actors, director and screenplay really spark to life, when you can see the movie Fletcher wants to make but can’t quite reach.

Festival play and possibly a limited art-house release loom for this intricately thought-out film.

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Gilmore girl Alexis Bledel and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan play the title characters, who seem like they spun out of a Tarantino movie. Violet and Daisy are hit girls in New York, casually amoral about assignments with their only real concern being what dresses to buy with the pay. The movie unfolds in 10 chapters with the first being the most Tarantino-esque, which actually establishes the wrong tone for what is to come.

A new assignment — an easy one for an increase in pay, they are assured — takes the film into much trickier terrain. The target, played as a wry and rumpled sad sack by James Gandolfini, actually welcomes the girls’ visit to his dumpy apartment. This bothers them: Shooting a willing victim seems unprofessional.

The movie now devolves into a three-hander, with any number of incidents and other “guests” causing interruptions but the movie essentially becomes a play. The theater perhaps was the natural medium for Fletcher’s story. Certainly his dialogue with its occasional portentousness might have played better on stage.

Nevertheless, Fletcher is able to move characters and events out to the street and back so the film only occasionally goes static. The key confrontation in this life-or-death situation between killers and a eager victim forces self-examination on the parts of all three. Questions they’ve skillfully avoided now get asked: How deep is Violet and Daisy’s friendship? What makes the lonely man so willing to die? How important is love to each of these people?

The roles each plays create existential barriers between them and the outside world. It’s all exaggerated here, of course, within a fable, which includes one inspired dream sequence that tantalizingly suggests images from Vi’s cloudy past. These are largely unexamined lives. Everyone has given up on real ambitions and friendships. The murder-for-hire is no more than play-acting: This hit is literal escapism for all three. So when each is forced to acknowledge this, the stakes grow that much higher.

Bledel’s Violet is the hard-ass of the two, or at least that’s the role she chooses to play. She may actually be the more frightened but simply reacts in the opposite way. Ronan’s Daisy goes along with the hit-girl thing but she secretly clings to other self-images. In his encounter with these two girls, Gandolfini’s character confronts the real reason for checking out: The loss of his family and fierce rejection of him by a daughter the same age.

Fletcher directs a little stiffly at times. Plus not all his ideas as a writer work out on screen. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays a God-like character, another hit woman — the No. 1 assassin, in fact — who watches over all the characters in Fletcher’s fable. But the character is too extraneous and insubstantial to register the way the writer-director intends. She’s in the way.

The ending goes a little gooey but probably is the right final note. The movie becomes less of a fable by this point though and a little too earnest and sentimental.

A number of top professionals — production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, cinematographer Vanja Cernjul and editor Joe Klotz — help Fletcher keep the story constantly evolving. It’s a film that doesn’t always work but when it does you almost hear an audible click. Violet & Daisy has its share of these ah-ha moments.

It’s satisfying to see a new film talent push himself. It would have been an easier sell, to audiences and film buyers alike, to go for more shocking realism and social consciousness. By upending expectations, Fletcher shows he’s a man to watch. You won’t know what to expect from him the next time.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Magic Violet/GreeneStreet Films
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolfini, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Danny Trejo
Director/screenwriter: Geoffrey Fletcher
Producers: Geoffrey Fletcher, Bonnie Timmermann
Executive producers: John Penotti, James Skotchdopole
Director of photography: Vanja Cernjul
Production designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Music: Paul Cantelon
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editor: Joe Klotz
Sales: CAA
No rating, 96 minutes