Tuesday, December 4, 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY Is a Pitch-Black Crime Comedy With Bite


- Andrew Dominik made one of the best movies of the last decade in the underrated Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The man is clearly an ultra-ambitious director with little interest in sticking to convention, and is certainly a talent worth keeping an eye on. His latest film, KILLING THEM SOFTLY - his first since Jesse James - is another genre-bending boundary-pusher. It's a pitch-black crime flick that blends the uber-violence of Scorsese, the outlandish gallows-humor-laden dialogue of Tarantino, and the surrealistic, existentialist flourishes of the Coen Bros. The result is a fascinating, ultra-intense, often darkly hilarious movie that aims high, and that occasionally lives up to the size of its ambitions. Certainly, this ain't your run-of-the-mill crime flick.

In Killing Them Softly, we see the politics of American crime juxtaposed with American national politics. Namely, set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis and near-economic collapse, we see a parallel sort of  crisis playing itself out in the Boston underworld. When two low-level hoods decide to hold up a card game - whose participants include any number of the city's most prominent mob members - they inadvertently set off a chain of events that threatens to disrupt the entire local crime infrastructure. We follow the money to the top of the criminal food chain, where enforcers and hitmen are brought in in order to clean up the mess, resulting in a flurry of violence intended to reestablish the status quo and get back to business as usual.

Dominick is not subtle in how he juxtaposes the main story with the national financial crisis happening in the background. All throughout the film, we see and hear snippets of news coverage from 2008. We see George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama each weighing in on the ongoing economic firestorm. And as each talks of measures being taken to curb the problem, as we see Obama talk of hope and change, we in turn see a bleak, dark, criminal underworld that is both reflects and perverts the American Dream. Dominick takes a big gamble here - using political footage from 2008 so prominently means that he better have a damn good thematic thread that interweaves throughout the film. If he's trying to make a grand point, he better make it well. I think he only partially succeeds. I think most people will leave the movie scratching their heads, trying to connect the dots and wondering what, exactly, Dominick is trying to say here. In some cases, that's good - a work that invites discussion and open-interpretation can be a great thing. The problem is that KILLING THEM SOFTLY hits you over the head so hard with its juxtapositions that it seems to want to make a clear, easily-determined point. But what that point is, exactly - or what it all means - doesn't entirely register.

But ... forget about all that for a second. Because honestly, even if the political overtones don't 100% work, a lot of things in the movie do. Again, forget about the complaints above as I tell you that the real meat of the movie - the crime stuff - is mostly super-badass. There is a dark, dark intensity here that is edge-of-your-seat. And the humor - pitch-black - is great. Aided by a top-flight cast, Dominick crafts gripping heist scenes  and hilarious dialogue exchanges.

The plot of the film revolves around two career-criminal screw-ups - Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) who are convinced to attempt a risky, but potentially lucrative, scheme. The idea is that if they rob a high-powered underworld card game, no one will suspect them. Instead, they figure that the criminal higher-ups will point the finger of blame at a hood named Trattman (Ray Liotta), who tried to rob it once before. As it turns out, the robbery has numerous consequences both intended and unintended. It does indeed put the hapless Trattman in the hot-seat, but it also disrupts the regular card game now that the participants are afraid that they could be robbed at gunpoint at any time. The dissolution of the game, of course, creates a major financial vacuum in the criminal world. And so Jackie Cogan (Bradd Pitt) - a cool, collected, utterly ruthless mob enforcer, is brought in to straighten things out. Taking orders from a mysterious, well-dressed mob-lawyer (Richard Jenkins), Cogan recruits his best heavy - Mickey (James Gandolfini) to kill who needs to be killed and make sure that the money is once again flowing.

Let me talk for a second about the card game robbery that sets the movie's plot in motion. Wow - what a sequence. Mixing comedy (Frankie and Russell have yellow dishwashing gloves instead of regular gloves) and uber-intensity (any one of the heavy-hitters at the card table could whip out a gun at any moment and plug the two mooks), the whole robbery sequence pulses with the constant threat of danger. It's a bravura bit of filmmaking. Elsewhere, Killing Them Softly has some of the most darkly humorous exchanges I've ever seen on film. Frankie and Russell have a great dumb-and-dumber dynamic, and their dimwitted, drug-addled conversations are fantastic and funny. Same goes for just about every scene involving James Gandolfini's unstable hitman Mickey - a guy who sheds no tears over killing a man but who keeps getting broken up over the poor state of his marriage. He drowns his sorrows in an ocean of drinking, prostitutes, and lethargy ... which leads to a great contrast with Pitt's on-point, uber-cool Jackie. Pitt also has a great chemistry with Richard Jenkins - with Pitt's ear-to-the-street know-how coming up against Jenkins' ear-to-the-big-bosses bureaucratic bookkeeping. The various dialogue exchanges have a Tarantino-esque sizzle to them, and are consistently entertaining and clever - and often, as mentioned, really freakin' funny.

And the cast is basically perfect for this sort of thing. McNairy and Mendelsohn have an awesome comedic chemistry. Pitt's role isn't that different from others he's played, but we all know that Pitt is at his best when he's playing someone who's at least a little bit nuts. And Jackie Cogan - thought cool as a cucumber on the outside - is definitely at least a little bit nuts. He's a guy who will act all buddy-buddy before blowing your brains out, who will talk casually about beating the crap out of a guy the same as he would about running an errand. Ray Liotta gives Trattman a starry-eyed charm that makes it that much more hard-to-watch when he's set up to be the mob's fall guy for the robbery. A great turn from the crime flick veteran. Gandolfini is awesome here. He puts 110% into the role of Mickey, it's one of those acting jobs where the actor goes all-in, making every lip-curl, finger-point, and labored breath a part of the character. Jenkins - playing a character in some ways similar to the one he portrayed in Cabin in the Woods, is also reliably excellent.

Dominick lends most of the film a straightforward intensity, but he also tries for a number of artistic flourishes (in addition to the political excerpts). Some work very well (a slo-mo scene of Pitt gunning down a victim on the road), others seem like too much and go on for too long (an attempt to embellish Frankie and Russell's drugged-up conversation with lots of trippy fade-outs becomes more annoying than novel). But Dominick displays a lot of raw talent and exciting ingenuity here. It's clear the guy's legit - you just wonder if he is trying to do too much with a story that's essentially a pretty straightforward crime yarn.

And that's why KILLING THEM SOFTLY is so fascinating, and a movie that is well worth checking out despite its flaws. If left to its own devices, the story of Jackie Cogan and the darkly-absurd inner-workings of America's criminal underground may have made for a compelling little film. Guys like Scorsese have taken such stories and made them multilayered American parables, without ever needing to get overtly political or on-the-nose with their broader themes. But Dominick swings for the fences, and tries to make a mini-epic out of this relatively compact and small-scale story. It could have worked ... maybe. But I don't know if he convincingly made me believe that the crime story in Killing Them Softly was somehow a microcosm of America or the financial crisis. Still, I suppose the movie does make the point that even crooks can feel the squeeze when the economy is hurting, and that there is indeed a hidden, shadowy layer to the great American economy that is co-dependent on the same institutions and rides the same ebbs and flows as any other business. Point being - the film says some interesting things, some funny things, and some pretty damn bleak things about America ... even if what it says never feels totally cohesive. But there is still a cerebral quality to the sex drugs and violence that tinges the film's nihilistic tone with a bit of thought-provoking intellectualism. It's a very interesting experiment - and we need more movies that take these kinds of swing-for-the-fences risks.

My Grade: B+

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