Skip to main content

I'm living in America. And in America, you're on your own.


Killing Them Softly
(2012)

A follow-up to the roundly-acclaimed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, reuniting director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt, was naturally highly anticipated. But the response to Killing Them Softly was generally muted, verging on mild disappointment. In particular, Dominik’s decision to set this adaptation of George V Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade at the time of the 2008 US presidential election was considered clumsy and lacking in finesse. As Dominik commented in an interview, his idea was for the microcosm of mob money problems to reflect the macrocosm of the global financial crisis. But did he have to laboriously sell this theme by repeatedly showing election coverage, even to the point of distracting the viewer from the dramatic thrust of scenes?


It’s a criticism I can relate to, but being forewarned can be something of a blessing in terms of expectations. The electioneering, be it on television or car radio, does feel excessive and intrusive during the opening sections of the film, and it returns in a monologue from Pitt’s Cogen in the final scene (which is, it has to be said, far from subtle). But, if this content was maintained throughout the rest of the film, it escaped my attention. It’s entirely possible, as I was consistently captivated by the filmmaking skills on display. With each new scene I was enthralled and dazzled, so confident is Dominik in what he sets out to do and the way in which he realises it. He is undoubtedly blessed with a fine complement of actors, some appearing for barely more than a couple of minutes (Sam Shepard), but it’s the craft he brings that impresses the most. He is as deft at eking out the laughs as the tension resulting from the threat of violence or the horror of the actual inflicting of it. As a result, I’m a lot more forgiving of some of his more obvious choices (one might even, occasionally, suggest that he tips overboard into the outright crass).


There’s little doubt that the film would have suffered hardly-at-all from the complete removal of wider parallels, and it’s likely that it would have been considerably enhanced if Dominik had honed his theme to make it subtler and less bludgeoning. His screenplay hews closely to the source novel, which only lends to weight to the sense that the political commentary is crude window dressing. Certainly, his major failures are all ones (the final speech aside) that appear to have been created, and therefore could have been resolved, in post-production.


It isn’t just the party politicking; it’s there in the music choices. Rightly, there was stunned disbelief that the director chose the Velvet Underground’s Heroin to accompany a character taking heroin. The musical cues generally follow the similar overt lines (a slow motion hit to the sound of Ketty Lester’s Love Letters). The visualisation of these scenes is so precise (in particular, the heroin scene, as one character attempts to extract vital information from another, who is drifting in and out of a state of narcotic bliss) that there is a slight twinge of “Oh, why did you have to go and do that?”


The premise is straightforward, which allows all the more room for character moments. Some of which are borderline Tarantino-esque vignettes. Three morons, Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Scoot McNairy) Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) rob a card game that is protected by the mob. The guy running the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), had once robbed the game but no one did anything about it because, well, they all like the guy. But this latest action spells trouble for the local economy, as confidence in the game collapses. Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is brought in by Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mid-level mob go-between, to find the guys responsible and mete out justice. Cogan’s view is that the only way to get the cash flowing again is to whack Trattman, even though he wasn’t involved this time, but the committee instructing Driver has cold feet.


Ben Mendelsohn referred to the script as a “comedy of manners” and it’s easy to see why. So much of Killing Them Softly concerns frustration of one character with another in attempting to reach his goal. Be it Cogan in his diligent attempts to put the local economy back on track (the cynical version of the Obama figure, if you will) in the face of ludicrous mob bureaucracy, or attempting to coax a fellow hit man to actually pucker up and do the job expected of him (James Gandolfini as Mickey), to Frankie gradually becoming aware that none of his accomplices have any more of a clue about keeping their deed quiet than he does.


While Dominik is far more interested in creating a believable environment, with characters that do not descend into authorial showboating, than Tarantino, there is a similar feel to the way both directors construct individual scenes as if they were mini-movies in themselves. The robbery of the card game is breathlessly tense (in spite of the ever-more intrusive television being on in the background), set up for something to go wrong as soon as inept Frankie and Russell done marigolds and brandish an ultra-sawn-off shotgun. Cogan’s encounter(s) with Mickey see him build from mild concern over the latter’s drinking and general aspect to decisive annoyance with the man who has left him holding the gun. Elsewhere, the beating of Trattman is horrifying and gruesome, yet also believably banal, as two characters who count themselves his friends become increasingly enraged that he won’t take it like a man (only compounded when Trattman makes a mess of one of their shoes).


Dominik has assembled a very fine cast, with Pitt presiding as the quite compere at the centre of events (although he doesn’t appear until 25 minutes into a 100 minute film). One might argue he doesn’t possess the grit or rawness of those around him, and thus how does he convince as the hard man hit man? But I’d argue this works for the character. He floats between worlds (and, as the protégé of the ailing Dillon (Sam Shepard), is looking to climb the “corporate” ladder) and plies his trade by knowing the best angles so doesn’t need to grandstand, even when interacting with the suited formality of Driver (whom he refers to as counsellor).

I’ll admit, though, I wasn’t entirely convinced he’d have come out of the encounter well if Mickey had flipped at him. It’s also generous role for a star to take; Gandolfino owns his scenes so completely that Pitt has little option but to allow him to steamroller on while we, the audience, share his increasing disquiet.


Cogan prefaces his involvement in sorting out this mess by telling Driver that he prefers the “kill them softly, from a distance”, approach; Mickey is called in because Cogan is disquieted by the messy emotionality of having to take out someone he knows. He is practical, reasonable, and not insensitive to the concerns of his victims (all the better to manoeuvre them into the best position to complete his work); as he says to Frankie, “They are all nice guys”.


But, that aside, Cogan’s focus is on what he can do to right the broader situation; he sees the bigger picture in this smaller world. Killing presents no concern per se. The frustrations of his mob bosses and their shortsightedness does. His ire is provoked by those who seek economic shortcuts, be it Kenny attempting to steal the tip he has just left (an amusing moment that defines the film more clearly than any amount of laborious extemporising), Mickey wining, dining and whoring on a free ticket or Driver’s bean-counting approach to paying what is due for a job done (cumulating with Cogan’s demand, “Now fuckin’ pay me!”). It is ironic that Dominik feels the need to embolden and signpost this with the tacked on period drapery, as the message is abundantly clear. Was he afraid that it would feel like a ‘70s film without it?


As the feckless losers who stage the robbery, Mendelsohn and McNairy are outstanding. They have at least as much screen time as Pitt and both etch out highly memorable characters. Frankie is the more tragic figure and McNairy sells his slack-jawed confidence, slowly transforming into palpable fear for his life. The only other work I recall McNairy in is Monsters, and I need to check out Argo and Promised Land. Mendelsohn has the plum, attention-grabbing part, a stream of coarse anecdotes and stoned semi-coherence. Russell is foul of mouth and appearance; you can almost smell his reek wafting from the screen. The comedy highlight sees him recount his dognapping experience with Kenny, featuring a canine and shit-filled car and a hilarious attempt to destroy said vehicle.


Jenkins elicits fewer belly laughs, but the comedy of corporate decision-making is no less amusing (“I gotta take them by the hand and I gotta walk them slowly through it like they're retarded children”). Part of the appeal here is the same mundanity Tarantino brings to his hit men in Pulp Fiction; it’s just a job, a means to make money, and a life holds no greater currency than the real thing.


Gandolfini’s shambolic sack of shit is his best big screen role in many a year (honestly, he’s not that been well-served; Virgil in True Romance is the most memorable part that comes to mind). It’s a little amusing that Mickey makes a show of how much more experienced than Cogan he is, when only two years separate the actors (one sense that Bradley moisturises a wee bit more).


Liotta, meanwhile, is awesome.  Like Gandolfini he usually gets cast as a particular type, in roles undeserving of his talents. Here he reminds you just how great an actor he is, particularly when showing off uncharacteristic vulnerability, and you’re sorry when he exits scene left. Still, Liotta has about 10 films coming out in the next year, so there’s a good chance a couple of his roles will be worth catching.


Greigh Fraser’s cinematography is gorgeous and, with this Snow White and the Huntsman and Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 proved to be a great year for his CV. The editing is more of a thorny issue. Where it is in the service of the dramatic needs of the scene it is invariably excellent. Less so when it’s running with the presidential ticket.


And that’s ultimately what stymies an otherwise excellent crime movie. “America isn’t a country. It’s a business” is sound bite dialogue that sounds great in a trailer or on a poster but is heavy-handed within the narrative itself. Dominik’s next project, Blonde, concerns Marilyn Monroe. I’m dubious how much there is left to say about this screen icon, but any film the director attaches himself to is automatically a must-see. And, if it’s less than another five years until we see it, so much the better.

 ****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.