It’s absolutely no surprise that writer-director Jesse Baget, of this week’s “Breathless,” is a massive fan of the Coen Brothers. His characters are articulate without being too bright, magnanimous despite moments of cruelty, and loyal in spite of overwhelming greed. Earlier this year, he was responsible for the theatrically-released “Cellmates,” which peppered gags into the straight-faced story of a racist finding redemption behind bars. No such moral obligations trouble “Breathless,” an old-fashioned talky potboiler that utilizes the verbal gymnastics of an overwritten script to hide the fact that this actor’s exercise takes place at only one location.
The flipside of her tough-talking matriarch that brings sass and sense into “Killer Joe,” Gina Gershon stars as Lorna, a put-upon Texan wife to one of those classic no-good varmint-types, tall-walking cowboy Dale (Val Kilmer). Dale, as charming as he might be, has quite the rap sheet, and when news of a robbery circulates, it’s got his fingerprints all over it. Of course, Lorna not only hasn’t heard a peep from Dale, but has been expecting him to exit stage right from their troubled marriage with fistfuls of cash and zero regrets.
Lorna’s plan involves recruiting her timid, less-aware partner Tiny (Kelli Giddish) to witness the shakedown, as she ties Dale to a chair and threatens him with some mean-looking firepower. Once the particulars have been established, “Breathless” has all the makings of an about-par actor’s workshop, with Lorna in the driver’s seat of a hostage situation, Dale attempting to wink and sass-talk his way out of his ropes, and Tiny ping-ponging back and forth between accepting Dale’s far-fetched cries of innocence and Lorna’s hostile accusations.
The interplay between Gershon and Kilmer is fairly amusing, the two of them stone-cold vets at this sort of setup by now. Kilmer grounds his minor character in the believability of being dim-witted enough to have planned his excuses better than his cries of innocence, creating a bumpkin reeking of guilt as he talks circles around every potential truth. Gershon rebounds against his wily defense with firm, unbending aggression, though it seems to careen back and forth between sensing the amount of cash just outside of her reach, and wanting to atone for the apparently unending indignity of being hitched to a thoughtless pig.
Unfortunately, because of a horrific in-the-moment accident (or because Val Kilmer has to run off and shoot five suspense thrillers in Bulgaria), Dale conspicuously exits the narrative, leading Lorna and Tiny to deal with the mystery of where the money could be hidden, and if Dale was or was not telling the truth. Their amateur sleuthing consists of several distractions, however: one is Sherriff Cooley (Ray Liotta), who not only knows of Dale’s past transgressions, but detects the faint whiff of desperation in Lorna’s folksy attempts to remove him from the steps of her trailer. Liotta, also a veteran of such setups, leverages his whimsical Southern Sheriff schtick with the sense that he’s got a slight crush on Lorna.
And who wouldn’t? Gershon has run the gamut of thankless supporting roles by now, usually as the Other Girl, whether it be in dude pictures that utilize her conniving smirk (“Face/Off”), sexy films where she represented the dark mirror of the attainable female lead (“Showgirls,” “Palmetto”), or domestic films, twisted or otherwise, that properly take advantage of her hand-on-hip sass (“Killer Joe”). When she’s in the lead, what’s emphasized is her lupine sexuality and naughty smile, which suggests an endless reservoir of potential bad behavior — it’s no wonder these films (“Prey For Rock And Roll,” "Kettle Of Fish") don’t necessarily connect with general audiences. She’s not sexually attractive as much as she’s sexually threatening. Pity some audiences aren’t excited by this.
Unfortunately, “Breathless” (improperly named — its languid but mannered pace seems intentional) doesn’t find much to showcase around Gershon’s colorful, oversized turn. It’s her vitality that keeps the film from seeming familiar like any number of genre efforts, though it almost does the film a disservice. Her whipcrack energy is poorly countered by Giddish, a skilled actress who can’t help but reveal the wheels turning inside her head as she forces Tiny to be two steps behind Lorna intellectually. By the time Wayne Duvall lumbers into the film as a pot-bellied P.I. stinking of Coen Brothers b-sides, suddenly altering the power balance of the picture so he can snort and holler, “Breathless” has spent all of its excess energy. [C-]