“Community? There is no community. Here in America, you’re on your own.”
Dredd, Lawless, Looper. Finally we’re getting some decent movies for adults. Two months before its US release, and still glowing after its Cannes acclaim, Andrew “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” Dominik’s latest movie, Killing Them Softly, most definitely earns its place alongside the others. Indeed what sets it apart from most others – even its aforementioned adult-rated brethren – is that it carries some highly topical political commentary. It’s been heralded as being one of the first of the new wave of anti-Capitalist movies, following on from the “Occupy” campaigns across the globe, but what makes it even more interesting is that this was merely incidental on the parts of the filmmakers. Perhaps that’s why it works so well.
Jackie Cogan is a professional assassin working for the Mob. When a protected card game down in still-crippled, post-Katrina, New Orleans is ripped off – for the second time – he is called in to clear up the mess and find out who did the job. Whilst it is ostensibly a very simple task, the situation is complicated by the potential PR-nightmare angle – everybody knows who did it first time around, and assumes that it was the same guy – and even further worsened by the mob’s own dire economic straits. Indeed, for the first time, Cogan finds that every single action he wants to take has to be authorised by a ‘committee’ of senior mob bosses. Hampered from all angles, Cogan just wants to do his job, something which used to be a whole lot easier.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, by crime author George V. Higgins (who wrote several ‘Cogan’ books), filmmaker Andrew Dominik never expected his adaptation – originally also called Cogan’s Trade until it was renamed Killing Them Softly – to be some kind of a political statement. Yet whilst writing the screenplay, Dominik found that the parallels were impossible not to take advantage of. He’s been reported as having said “what the story is about is an economic crisis in a criminal economy – an economy supported by gambling – and the crisis occurred because of a failure of regulation, so it seemed to be an opportunity to make a film about what was happening in 2008, to make a story about the economic crisis”.
Updating the setting to 2008 – and to post-Katrina New Orleans just to hammer the point home – Dominik has crafted an insightful look at modern ‘Mob’ mentality which would be a refreshing watch even without the political subtext. His mob bosses are unseen overlords who decide things in committee; who seldom understand the difference between doing what’s necessary and doing what they think should be done. These are guys who need the situation spelt out in very simple terms and, even then, still need to mull over it before any decision can be reached.
The situation, of course, involves two hapless low-level criminals, who sign up for a potentially suicidal job – to rip off the Mob – but think that they have their escape covered. They’ve got a fall guy; an obvious culprit who will plead innocence – even under interrogation – but who the Mob won’t believe for a second. They figure once he gets whacked, everything will get tied off and nobody will come after them.
Of course they didn’t figure on Jackie Cogan, who is clever enough to see through the sleight-of-hand right from the outset. Cogan’s problem, though, isn’t figuring out who needs to be killed; it isn’t finding the targets; and it certainly isn’t actually killing them – his problem is those damn higher-ups that he answers to, who want everything to have a clean, easy, happy ending. And want it for a cut-price too.
What drives this piece is a series of unconnected diatribes and conversations, offered up by several of the characters during the course of the heist-tracking-killing procedure. They are seemingly mundane, innocuous tales, which probably would not have even earned a place in a Tarantino movie, but which do a stunning job at fleshing out the characters who deliver them. This isn’t about snappy, punchy quick-fix throwaway dialogue; this is about thought-provoking, resonating commentary, and character-driven storytelling.
Whether it’s the hapless low-rent duo of Scoot McNairy (the lead from the excellent Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, Killer Elite and Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises) who stumble around making so many stupid mistakes that you wonder whether they’re a comedy act, or the somewhat sympathetic, almost pitiful mid-league mobster played by Ray Liotta (the Goodfellas veteran who is here on the best form he’s been on in years – since Identity and possibly even Narc); whether it’s Richard “Six Feet Under” Jenkins’s painfully slow Mob intermediary – he relays all of the “committee’s” decisions back to Cogan – or James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini’s drunk-before-midday fellow hitman; they’ve all got some great little moments of dialogue, moments where the characters are slowly – almost unbeknownst to you as a viewer – being fleshed out and developed.
Galdolfini has little more than an extended cameo and yet he stands out in the piece – in two almost unrelated dialogue sequences he manages to flesh out an unprecedented amount of background detail into his character and leave us with a portrait of quite an equally tragic and despicable man who still has the presence to intimidate, even if he exalts it on all the wrong people.
It’s Pitt’s baby of course, jumping at the chance to reteam with the director – he agreed to the part by text! – and once again surprising audiences with the breadth of his capabilities. I’ve always been concerned that Pitt would eventually slip into formulaic roles which require his Pitt-isms more than they require any kind of acting, but, along with Jesse James and The Tree of Life, this is one of his least Pitt-esque roles. Even his commendable performance in Moneyball saw a more expected approach from the star. Here he displays almost none of his trademark mannerisms, bringing intensity and intelligence to a part which could easily have just been swallowed up in the narcissistic mire that often comes to the fore in this kind of movie. There are practically no likeable characters – they’re all either degenerate losers or nasty gangsters – but, somehow, even playing a cold-hearted professional hitman, Pitt still manages to make you admire his character, even if you don’t necessarily want to be best friends with him. He’s the only person who appears to have his finger on the pulse; he’s the only person who knows what has to be done and is also prepared to do it.
“I like to kill them softly... from a distance.”
Before you get all worried that this may be one of those marmite films that only those who also loved The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will like, I have to reveal the fact that I didn’t get on all that well with that previous collaboration between Dominik and Pitt. It was just too long, and too contemplative – and it lost me somewhere on the way.
Killing Them Softly is an entirely different animal. For starters, it’s only 97 minutes long. There was a longer version – Dominik’s first cut ran at over an hour longer, and included scenes with characters (like Deadwood’s Garrett Dillahunt, brought back in from Assassination of Jesse James, and currently in Looper) which never made the final cut – but we have to presume that the director chose to make it much more streamlined. Whilst the Studios might have given him a hard time over another two-and-a-half-hour beast, with Pitt on board, they would probably end up losing that battle (it’s Pitt who lobbied to have Jesse James’s one-of-the-longest-film-titles-ever kept in-tact). After all, the Studios may have wanted a shorter movie, but probably would not have required it to be this short. Hopefully, it was just Dominik’s call based on the material and the angle he wanted to take. Sure, it’s a shame we don’t get to see Dillahunt at all, and, for example, Safe House’s Sam Shepherd – here playing a fellow hitman, barely gets a single line of dialogue – but this still feels intentional. By barely featuring Shepherd’s Dillon, his character’s name carries so much more menace. Surely this was intentional?! Besides, this is much more of a character-driven piece as opposed to the ethereal mood piece that was Assassination, and the gangster thriller structure was perhaps not quite strong enough to warrant an epic runtime. Dominik knew that he had a film that had a message; had something to say, and he clearly didn’t want it to get swallowed up by its own ego. Who knows though – perhaps we’ll see a 150-minute Director’s Cut on Blu-ray but, so far, this feels like it’s already just about the perfect length.
Stylistically, even working with a clearly minimal budget, Dominik manages to bring forth some very memorable moments and a brooding menace that engulfs the whole production. From the very disconcerting opening credits sequence – which spurts a cacophony of discordant notes at you as one of the characters walks down a long, dark corridor and the titles blurt across the screen – leaves you shell-shocked. It’s a high-impact variation on those intrusive, oppressive tones that hit you during the start of another great character piece, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
We’re treated to numerous tracking shots that take in the weather-torn dilapidated New Orleans backdrop, planting the disparate characters slap-bang in the middle of this mess. One brilliant moment has Ben Mendelsohn’s strangely loveable but utterly reprehensible drug addict loser bumbling along the equally dirty streets to meet his only-slightly-more with-it friend, played by Scoot McNairy, who we find standing on top of a discarded, broken chair, in the middle of the street. In any other film – in any other setting – it would likely prove so surreal that it could threaten to take you right out of the movie, but here it just seems... appropriate. Normal, even.
Dominik doesn’t just woo us with wonderful tracking set-ups, or unusual character-placement, he also throws us some really stylistically innovative sequences – like a scene where one character has just shot up some smack and his friend is trying, desperately, to get him to answer some questions. It’s fantastic – and so convincing – watching him lapse in and out of focus; the screen blurring and going dark every few seconds as he barely manages a lucid thought in-between black-outs; his friend growing with frustration at the futility of the interrogation, and the viewer feeling the exact same mounting frustration at the stop-start flow (or lack thereof) of the dialogue. Genius.
Perhaps the least engaging directorial flourishes – at least for me – came during the slow-motion shooting sequences, where distinctly average CG touches only diminish the impact of the shots. Still, they got the job done, and there are many more subtle moments (Pitt’s sunglass-wearing hitman visage reflected over a rain-spattered window) which warmly add to the style of the piece.
As already noted, there’s more than enough substance in Killing Them Softly for it to survive without any kind of subtext. Unlike Lawless, which was a good but flawed gangster drama that only skated loosely along the edge of parallels with the current economic clime, Killing Them Softly is a much more perfected character-driven affair which also adds in a hefty but welcome extra layer of socio-political analogy. Whether it’s the frustrations over never being able to get anything done without running it past a committee of Mob bosses who likely know nothing about what needs to be done (the irony of the fact that it took half a dozen production companies just to get this film made is not lost on this reviewer either), or the fact that it becomes necessarily to kill a high-profile but innocent scapegoat just to appease a criminal underworld baying for blood (how many PR ‘sacrifices’ have Governments made over the last few years?). As Pitt himself would note, the political direction of the movie would not become crystal clear until the close of the movie, showing “that this microcosm is actually saying something about the macro world”. The director also certainly does not want to take sides: Republican or Democrat, the fault lies with whichever Government has a hold of the reins – it’s a political angle which will likely find favour amidst the majority of viewers out there; the general population of 99%ers who don’t appreciate the frankly criminal behaviour of the remaining niche group. For Dominik, the crime genre has always been the perfect place to marry up this analogy: where else would you be surrounded by so many crooks whose motivations were all purely financial?
“America is not a country... America is a business! Now pay me my god-damn f**king money!”
Economic crisis will likely be the flavour of the month for quite some time to come, but Killing Me Softly is much more than just a pulpit for topical political “Occupy” commentary. It perfectly blends these weightier themes with strong direction, worthy performances and insightful characterisations, telling a character-driven tale which stands on its own independent of its welcome subtext. It’s a great little gem, perhaps ultimately lacking the absolute refinement required to make it a classic masterpiece, but still undoubtedly one of the better movies of the year, ranking up there with Dredd, Looper and Lawless in September’s Big Leagues. The summer may be over, but it looks like the competition to find the best movies of 2012 is just hotting up.
Give it a shot... softly.
2,789 word review written by Cas Harlow.
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