Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly
Directed by: Andrew Dominik.
Written by: Andrew Dominik based on the book by George V. Higgins.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Jackie), Scoot McNairy (Frankie), Ben Mendelsohn (Russell), James Gandolfini (Mickey), Richard Jenkins (Driver), Ray Liotta (Markie Trattman), Vincent Curatola (Johnny Amato), Trevor Long (Steve Caprio), Max Casella (Barry Caprio), Sam Shepard (Dillon), Slaine (Kenny Gill), Linara Washington (Hooker).

I wish I liked Killing Them Softly much more than I actually do. There is so much in this movie to admire. The performances by the entire cast – Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta – are great. Much of the dialogue, lifted directly from the novel Cogan’s Trade by the great George V. Higgins, is also great. And the film contains one of the single best final scenes of any movie so far this decade. And yet, so much of this movie just fails to hit the right notes. The film was directed by Andrew Dominik, whose last film was the masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Killing Them Softly is over directed by Dominik, who tries to add importance to the storyline by paralleling the story to the election of Barack Obama, and barring that final scene, it pretty much completely fails, and serves only to distract from the rest of the movie. Over much of the movie, we hear speeches – by George W. Bush, by John McCain, by Barack Obama – and these speeches fight for attention with the dialogue sequences. Dominik’s musical choices are far too on the nose and self-conscience. And then there are a few scenes that seem like Dominik is just showing off, even though it adds nothing to the movie. There is so much to admire about this movie – and yet I don’t think the movie ever quite comes together.

The plot of the movie is simple. A low level mob guy known as the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) has an idea to rob a mob sanctioned card game. The guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) knocked over his own game a few years ago – and although he got away with it, everyone knows he did it, so if it happens again, he figures he’ll get the blame. The Squirrel reaches out to Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to get him to actually do the robbery – and in turn, Frankie brings in Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), which is not a good idea for many reasons, the biggest being that he is a drug addict. Anyway, the robbery works out as it should – but then Russell shoots off his mouth. Driver (Richard Jenkins), a lawyer who works for the mob, brings in Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hit man, to take care of the aftermath. Jackie, in turn, brings in Mickey (James Gandolfini) to perform one of the hits.

Dominik’s screenplay adheres very closely to George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade. Higgins is one of those authors, like Elmore Leonard, who raises dialogue to an art form. His books are mainly a series of long conversations – sometimes even monologues that go on for pages – of hard, coarse, underworld poetry. Higgins characters are often not very smart – most of the characters in this movie certainly fit into that category. The smartest decision Dominik made in the screenwriting phase is realize that he wasn’t going to improve on Higgins’ dialogue, and keeps whole passages from the novel. And for the most part, the actors are excellent in their roles. Gandolfini as a once great hit man who has become washed up and pathetic, Jenkins as an all business lawyer, who discusses murder as if it’s a stock transaction, McNairy as a bundle of nervous energy as the noose slowly tightens around his neck, Mendolsohn, as a sweaty mess, Liotta and doing his Liotta gangster thing to perfection. Best of all is Pitt, who reteams with Dominik, the director who gave him his best role in Jesse James. I’m not sure there’s another working right now who uses their eyes as effectively as Pitt does – and it’s different in every movie. The crazed look he has in 12 Monkeys, the mischievous gleam of Fight Club, the pure charm of Moneyball, and the violent insanity that turns into quiet resignation of Jesse James. In Killing Them Softly, Pitt’s eyes are cold and emotionless – but always thinking. You can see him evaluating and re-evaluating during every one of his conversations in this film. Best of all is the closing scene – where Pitt simply owns the screen.

And yet, despite how much I liked the dialogue and the performances, the movie never really rises to their level. The movie gets off to a rocky start with a strange, headache inducing series of flashes of McNairy walking with speeches pumping in around him. It’s a jarring opening, which I suppose was the intent, but I don’t think it’s an effective one – it’s simply off putting. The same is true for the robbery itself – with a Bush speech droning on in the background, far too loud for the movie’s good, which distracts from the tension of the scene itself. There are two other sequences that are far too over the top stylistically as well – a scene between McNairy and Mendelsohn, where Mendelsohn is stoned, and comes in and out of consciousness, and the movie fades in and out as well, and one of the murder scenes in the most painstaking slow motion sequence since Zack Snyder’s last movie.

Yet, I also have to admit, that while I found all the political stuff to be a distraction for the majority of the movie, it is this exact element that makes the final scene work as brilliantly as it does. And that final scene is a doozy, with easily the best, most memorable closing line in any movie this year.

What it all boils down to is that I’m not really sure what to make of Killing Them Softly. I have a feeling that a second viewing would help to clarify my feelings on the movie a little. Now that I know about the movie’s stylistic excesses, and it’s strange, slow pace, I would be prepared for that, which I wasn’t this time around. I only really know two things after one viewing of Killing Them Softly – the first is that Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle with the great Robert Mitchum remains the best adaptation of a George V. Higgins novel, and two, I need to see this one again.

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