An effervescent, true-life tale of shenanigans in small-town northern Spain, “Kill Me Tender” has a bleakly comic tone that suggests, at a distance, the Coen Bros., and closer to home, Luis Berlanga. Though riddled with flaws and sometimes light on subtlety, the script represents an honest attempt to come to grips with quietly desperate lives that Spanish cinema generally ignores, presenting them with a keenly ironic edge. Though local B.O. will likely be only OK, the distinctive wit and tone of writer-director Ramon de Espana’s feature debut deserve a berth at offshore arthouses.
Nestor (Emilio Gutierrez Caba), a recently widowed baker and scooter-riding Dean Martin fan, hires Maribel (gum-chewing, aggressive Ingrid Rubio) to help him around the house. Though he’s old enough to be her father, the lonely guy falls for her. Maribel’s sister, Angela (Chusa Barbero), who works in an S&M club in nearby Barcelona, advises Maribel to go for the dough and marry the wealthy Nestor.
Angela’s husband, one-time legionnaire Beni (Manuel Manquina), runs a debt-collection service in which people dress up as rabbits and follow bad debtors round the streets to humiliate them into paying. One of these rabbits is Starsky & Hutch fan Manolo (Alberto San Juan), who also falls for Maribel.
Having made a pass at Maribel and been rejected, Nestor goes insane with jealousy and heads for Barcelona to get her. Eventually, the two marry, with her hoping he’ll die quickly. Just when Maribel and Manolo have decided to knock Nestor off, the old guy keels over from heart failure, with a couple of plot twists to follow.
The fluidly recounted plot has the kind of barmy logic that reveals its provenance in real life. The abundance of material is well handled, though matters darken so much in the second half, especially with the revelation of Maribel’s tragic family background, that the comic tone is compromised.
Pains have been taken not to over-simplify characters and to observe their multiple failings with compassion. Thesps maximize the opportunity this offers, with the dependable Manquina, as the corrupt but charitable Beni, and Gutierrez Caba, as the outstandingly seedy Nestor, coming over especially well. Rubio also slides effectively into an unaccustomed role as the foul-mouthed, go-getting Maribel, while San Juan, whose mannerisms often grate in his other work, feels fine here.
Dialogue is often richly bizarre, and lensing by David Omedes takes real pleasure in the tawdry interiors of provincial Spanish homes. Alfonso de Villalonga’s score is quietly efficient.