Friday, 28 September 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn.

The opening credits of Andrew Dominik’s second collaboration with Brad Pitt, with a grimy-looking man shuffling through a dark tunnel into harsh sunlight while a Barack Obama pre-presidential speech is interspersed with jarring, discordant music, is a sequence strongly reminiscent of the great paranoid crime thrillers of the 1970s (Hollywood’s most creative period outside of the 1930s). It’s a fantastic opening to a film that very quickly announces itself as an examination of the profound and fundamental rottenness that lies at the heart of both the criminal and legitimate economies of America, and one that owes a debt to previous studies of moral and financial corruption, such as Serpico and The French Connection. In his post-9/11, financial crisis-era crime thriller, Dominik consciously recalls the paranoia and cynicism of Vietnam-Nixon-era cinema, and both in form and in content there’s a clear debt to Scorsese’s early work. The film refers directly to Scorsese's Mean Streets, with the (slightly overused) juxtaposition of pop music and violence, use of tracking shots and stylistic framing, and emphasis on small time hoodlums scrabbling for a taste of power and wealth. Harvey Keitel’s character in Scorsese’s film provided a kind of moral resistance to a world otherwise devoid of integrity and ethics, and even in Taxi Driver De Niro’s Travis Bickle offered a perverted sense of morality against the overflowing decadence and misery on the streets of New York. But Killing Them Softly provides no such respite from the darkness, and in a film that that uses many conventions of the morality play, it’s a crucial irony that here, there is no absolutely no ethical centre. This is reflected in Dominik’s placing and presentation of character: even the menacing Jackie Cogan, in another charismatic turn from Pitt, couldn't really be described as the protagonist, only turning up in the second act, and gradually entering the spotlight as one by one he eliminates the other crooks.

Angel of Death: Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan
Much has been made of the political broadcasts and news footage that play in the background of many scenes, and at times they feel superfluous; heavy-handed at worst, and at best, offering trite comparisons between the banking system, American politics, and the criminal underworld. But as the inevitable grip of violent retribution tightens around Frankie and Russell, the crooks who robbed a card game and left Ray Liotta’s Markie to take the blame, those comparisons begin to offer interesting new dimensions to the onscreen action. Cogan is brought in to kill Markie, knowing full well that although he had nothing to do with the robbery, someone must pay for the transgression. Much like Anton Chigurh in 2008’s No Country For Old Men, Cogan is figured as an angel of death, acting to restore the appearance of order. For him, right and wrong are irrelevant, balance is everything.  

It’s entirely appropriate then, that Pitt gets the final line in the film, giving us not simply a deliciously pithy, cynical summation of the rotten core of America, but one whose dark humour and rhythm is up there with the all-time great finishers that round off Goodfellas and John Huston’s beautifully nihilistic The Maltese Falcon. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is a very talky film, swimming with Mamet-esque, expletive-ridden dialogue and efficient, engaging exposition. The violence, when it appears, is often short, nasty and brutish, save for one technically astonishing sequence involving traffic lights and extreme slow motion. The extreme stylishness of this scene is matched only by an odd feeling of it being at odds with the tough grittiness of the rest of the piece, and in several other places Dominik’s strong sense of style threatens to overwhelm the drama. In contrast, the simple robbery scene in the first act is fraught with tension, as the two amateur crooks fumble their way through the scene with a comically short sawn-off shotgun and two pairs of bright yellow marigolds, presumably to protect against fingerprint evidence. Indeed, this collision of humour and darkness is one of the film’s strengths, situating itself alongside this year’s Killer Joe, and even last year’s Drive, with its combination of heavy stylisation and brutal, explicit violence.

What he hasn't fucked in the last three days he's drunk:
James Gandolfini as washed-up hitman Mickey
There’s no doubt that Killing Them Softly is imperfect, with the political commentary sometimes coming off as clunky and unnecessary, and the film takes a few stylistic liberties too many. However, with a terrific performance from Pitt, a sensibility richly steeped in the traditions of American crime cinema, a corking, funny script and a sense of darkness and cynicism that sustains to the end, this is arguably the best crime drama of the year. Only time will tell if it can stand up along with its classic forbears, but regardless, this is cinema at its most pessimistic, satirical and vital.

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