Monday, December 10, 2012


Killing Them Softly

Directed & Written
Andrew Dominik

    I like gangster films. Maybe its because, if they are done correctly, they should contain a combination of grand, entertaining cinema, with an honest almost surreal sense of realism. I admire and search out films of this genre that contain that mixture. I want them to be entertaining with a narrative and filmmaking, almost to the cusp of outlandish, but grounded in reality and shear intensity. Films like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Goodfellas, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge are just a few examples. I mean, how can you think the gangster genre and how its evolved without evoking the name of Martin Scorsese. His use of music, tracking shots and pure raw filmmaking is what I'm getting at when I say an entertaining, well-made gangster, well any genre, film. Andrew Dominik's new film Killing Them Softly is a decent, if not flawed example of a gangster grounded in the reality and honesty of the times we live in and at the same time mildly entertaining, if not a struggle to watch.
    The film, directed by New Zealand born Andrew Dominik, tells the story of two low level thieves, Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) and their so called leader Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), who rob a mob protected poker game. The game, being conducted by mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), has had a previous poker game robbed but he was the one that had it robbed. Mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to find the dumb thieves and restore balance to the local gangland economy. The film is blunt about how the current economy recession and bailout under the Bush administration and impending election of Obama have affected the United States financially and philosophically. The world, and the for that matter, the mob world, is in turmoil when people are not making money. Especially when that money is being straight up stolen.
     Killing Them Softly, based on the book "Cogan's Trade" by the professional and gritty crime novelist George V. Higgins, is a down and dirty methodical piece of filmmaking. Its not perfumed with much action, minor a highly impressive slow motion shot of Cogan killing another character. I mean, this scene is insanely interesting to watch and probably much of the production budget went into filming this scene with super slow motion cameras. You can see every rain drop, splatter of blood and the intricate firing of the gun. It's really amazing stuff. The film is dialogue heavy and does not shy away from producing a bleak outlook for the economic future, much less any future of prosperity at all in the United States.

     Brad Pitt continues to show his value, charisma and wise acting choices with Killing Them Softly. Pitt shows a level of thought and zen-like intensity with his role as enforcer Jackie Cogan. He is cunning, cold and blunt about his attitude toward the task of searching out these idiotic, mouth running thieves. Richard Jenkins, who plays a mob middle man, is brilliant as always, and actually, the scenes between him and Pitt's Cogan are moments of dialogue that are somewhat stimualting and thought provoking. The real stand outs are the two lowlifes, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. McNairy,with this and his role in Ben Affleck's Argo, shows an actor on the rise. He and Mendelsohn have some of the funniest moments in the film, but at the same time you can't imagine how stupid these two can be at times. I think they are symbolic of the strung out and desperate in America, but also represent what happens when you let desire and desperation take hold of all logical thought. Well, that and a little drug use and dependency. I mean, shut up and move on. Don't dwell and talk about your recent stealing endeavors.
     One thing that kept me a little annoyed was the constant background TV and talk radio shows constantly showing or talking about the economic situation. There is no way these gangsters would be constantly watching or listening to this. I just did not believe it. Also, there are major pacing issues with this film. I really enjoy watching James Gandolfini and I believe his character, a down on his luck, drunk, mob enforcer named Mickey, was a metaphor for how some people have given up and let there emotions and vices take control of their life, but his scenes could have been cut down dramatically. I felt the film, when had momentum going, just halted at these two heavy, almost sappy scenes. The performances are right, but the writing and editing is lacking. These issues hurt this film and keep it from being as brilliant as my expectations had it be.

     Dominik's film, which is nowhere near as good as his previous two films, the insane, in your face Chopper, and the hypnotic, visual splendor that is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward the Robert Ford. He does show sophisticated style choices with the heroin scene and the grittiness that affiliates with grimy crime and gangster films, especially ones from 70s. In comparison to another Higgins book that was turned into a film, the utterly magnificent Peter Yates directed The Friends of Eddie Coyle, this film lacks in flavor, narrative flow and the total experience of a well balanced picture. This gangster film has moments of perfection, especially with the final scene, which sums up an uncomfortable truth of where we are as a country, but as a whole is not a complete success.
    I cannot say I completely disliked Killing Them Softly. I liked the performances immensely and some of the music choices, especially The Velvet Underground, made me extremely happy. The film is flawed and probably could have been cut down to about 70 minutes. I like talk heavy films, but they need to be conversing with interest and strength. I found myself being bored, which was disappointing with the expectations I had going in. Even though, I still want to see it again. It's visually satisfying with Greig Fraiser's lensing and I can't help but give gangster films a second chance. It's no Scorsese or Melville, but it is still an interesting take on a cherished genre in cinema and an indicting commentary on the state of the United States. Your on your own baby.

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