Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 27, 2012 10:08 am 
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Sleazy crooks at work, and in conversation

Rumor has it that George V. Higgins, whose 1974 novel Cogan's Trade Andrew Dominik's new movie Killing Them Softly is based on, is a master of lowlife criminals' disreputable doings and salty talk on a level with Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. The New Zealand-born Dominik seems a likely man to film such stuff: he clearly has no fear of offending or desire to appeal to the big audience. The trouble is he shows too great a bias toward the scummy and ultra-violent aspects of the story, and even those are undercut by a heavy-handed political irony he can't stop embroidering that involves monotonously repeated video clips from Bush and Obama speeches. But the compensation is a choice set of actors delivering the dialogue drawn from Higgins.

The cast is headed by Brad Pitt as the titular Jackie Cogan, a professional hit man. It also includes James Gandolfini as his intended backup, Rickard Jenkins as a mob rep, Ray Liotta as an illegal poker game operator, and Sam Shepard as a briefly glimpsed tough guy. Vincent Curatola, like Gandolfini a "Sopranos" alumnus, appears as a petty mobster with a small business front who aims to rob the poker game using inept crooks played by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy. There is just one female, a hooker, briefly but vividly played by Linara Washington. Dominik provides us with constant long spates of Higgins' dialogue, with some of the racism removed and the rambling verbosity quelled but the sexism, vulgarity, violence, and droll absurdity retained. The talk may be better than the action passages, or at least more palatable. Everything feels flavorful and authentic except for those occasional moments when things grow too arch and Tarantino-esque or the political irony makes too much static. Crime buffs with a taste for the unusual will find things to enjoy. But Softly can be recommended neither to the faint of heart nor to fans of high-speed actioners.

Proceedings begin when petty crime boss Johnny Amato, nickname "Squirrel" (Curatola), hires small-time hoods Frankie (McNairy) and Russell (Mendelsohn) to rob the poker game. Squirrel figures it's a perfect heist since the mob will suspect Markie Trattman (Liotta) due to his having once robbed his own setup and later admitted it. The first long dialogue, the book's opening pages, shows Squirrel strongly objecting to Frankie's bringing in Russell, a heroin addict recently out of jail. Mendelsohn plays his sweat-covered scumminess to the hilt. Dominik may arguably be expanding this part a tad more than necessary. The joke is that both these goons are pathetic losers. Their incompetence makes the robbery surprisingly tense and exciting -- the more so due to Markie's strong resistance. He knows he will be a suspect, and it goes badly for him later, but also for them. "Dominik somehow maintains a paradoxical tone," Mike D'Angelo wrote for AV Club from Cannes, "in which every scene is at once intensely heightened and utterly realistic—the stick-up, in particular, makes armed-robbery scenes in most other movies look false by comparison, without sacrificing tension."

A gambling robbery causes the games to be shut down and the mob can't have that, so Jackie is immediately called in by the mob as an enforcer. With slicked-back hair, shades, leather jacket and a hint of a swagger, Pitt plays Jackie is a sly, cat-like pro. "Not many people know me," he repeats. Maybe it's because those who would know him are dead. Enforcer Dillan (Shepard) appears briefly, and Jackie and genteel mob "business liaison" man Driver (Jenkins) begin a series of diverting confabs to arrange things. The movie follows a constant stop-and-go pace as much deliberation proceeds the smallest action, economic worries always one of the issues.

There are flourishes such as a conversation in which one of the speakers is fading in and out of consciousness from smack and the screen fades with him, and a horrific beating in which the victim repeatedly vomits. Again the effect is "at once intensely heightened and utterly realistic." Jackie's the one who likes to "kill them softly," to do his hits from a distance so there's no emotion, no embarrassing pleading. He likes to subcontract when the victim might know him, which leads him to bring in Mickey (Gandolfini) to do one of the hits. But in doing so he errs badly. Mikey is a washed up ex-con who goes on a (talky) three-day binge of whoring and drinking when called in, and can't do the job. Jackie continues to discuss the situation periodically with Driver, and these talks are expository as well as funny. Famously the tale ends with Jackie declaring that America is not a country but a business, and the constant references to the 2008 financial crisis, the time the action has been transplanted to, provide blunt underlining of the concept by Dominik, who wrote the adaptation as well as directed.

Dominik remains in many respects boldly original, but this is a considerable shift from his last movie, the poetic, revisionist portrait The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where Brad Pitt played James (a smaller role but, surprisingly, a festival-awarded one) and Casey Affleck his "coward" assassin; Sam Shepard was also present. Killing them Softly hasn't got Affleck or Assassination's self-indulgent artiness. Higgins' dialogue and earthy, simple crime plot more firmly anchor Killing Them Softly, but the latter has in common with Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, which also starred Affleck, the fact that it has choice performances but doesn't fully satisfy as narrative. Obviously Softly is justifiably meandering and unpredictable to fit its dicey situations and motley crew of crooks, but the talk tends to overwhelm the action and those repetitive Bush and Obama clips overwhelm the talk. Music too involves obvious or crudely ironic song choices. Many scenes are good in themselves, though, even if the movie as a whole is flawed.

Killing Them Softly, 97 mins., debuted at Cannes in May 2012. Release dates: UK, 21 Sept., US (Weinstein), 30 Nov., France, 5 Dec. 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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