“You’re lucky to be alive.” The words are repeated several times, with increasingly grim irony, in “The Suicide Theory,” a contrived but weirdly compelling thriller involving a tortured hitman, his willing prey, and the inexplicable curse that keeps them both from realizing their shared goal. Larded with bizarre twists, some more predictable than others, and full of unpleasantly suggested violence, Australian director Dru Brown’s sophomore feature (after his 2012 horror-thriller, “Sleeper”) is an oddball male weepie whose curious mixture of sweetness and sadism is well anchored by two solid, character-rich lead performances. Modest but respectable returns look likely in simultaneous theatrical and VOD release.
Steven Ray (Steve Mouzakis) is the sort of professional assassin who can be a terrifically friendly guy one minute and a vicious psychopath the next, as we observe firsthand in a prologue that rather too obviously introduces some intel that will pay off down the road. But before then, we see Steven in discussion with a prospective client named Percival (Leon Cain), who asks him to take out a most unexpected target: Percival himself. As assignments go, it’s harder than it looks. Percival has already tried to bump himself off numerous times with no success, sustaining more and more bodily damage with every attempt, yet somehow miraculously surviving each ordeal. And Steven’s inability to finish the job (even shooting Percival multiple times at point-blank range doesn’t do the trick) merely has the effect of deepening his own existential funk, as he wonders if it’s time to get out of the murder-for-hire business for good.
The darkly comic pleasure of “The Suicide Theory” is the bond that forms between predator and prey, as Steven develops a genuine liking for the sweet, undemanding guy who just wants to die already. In one of the more intriguing narrative developments, Percival reveals that his death wish stems from the loss of his boyfriend — and Steven, while not exactly a model of tact or tolerance when it comes to gay rights, winds up becoming Percival’s fiercest protector, especially when a gang of hostile homophobes enter the picture. The carnage that ensues is not particularly graphic, but it’s still brutal enough in its implications to make you recoil — which is arguably as it should be, lest we fall into the trap of finding Steven more sympathetic and cuddly than we should.
Michael J. Kospiah’s clever script begins to unravel in the second half, as it becomes clear that Steven and Percival have a few past experiences in common — at which point Brown’s film devolves into an overly tortured meditation on forgiveness, grief, retribution, and the grim inevitability of sowing what you reap. As puzzles go, this one is a bit too easy to solve, and in rather less time than it takes this solidly made, 96-minute movie to reach its dramatic terminus. That we can on some level perceive what’s coming doesn’t entirely diminish the emotional impact when it arrives, which is due almost entirely to the superb chemistry between Mouzakis and Cain, with Steven’s cold-blooded cynicism playing nicely off Percival’s earnest good nature. You may not entirely believe they’re bound by fate, but performances this expertly synced make it hard to protest too much.