Saturday, December 1, 2012

Killing Them Softly is a complete misfire

I read in an interview recently that Andrew Dominik, the writer and director of "Killing Them Softly" (which was adapted from the novel Cogan's Trade), was angry when he wrote this film. Angry with the state of the world, angry at a lot of things. That definitely comes through in his latest film, the first film he's made in five years. The anger is pretty apparent from the opening credits and it doesn't escape the screen for the rest of its 100 minutes.

Killing Them Softly is an angry film, but it's not exactly articulate. It's set in late 2008, the start of the economic collapse in America. Constantly, we hear George W. Bush and Barack Obama making speeches in the background, trying to appease a country that's about to fall apart. Killing Them Softly is angry about the state in which we live in, but it doesn't know where to point its finger. At our world leaders? At low-life criminals, or low-lifes in general? At society? What is it, exactly? It's all best exemplified by Jackie Cogan's last line of the film (which I won't spoil). Jackie's angry. So are we. We're angry because we had to watch such an angry movie with no payoff. Angry that there's no flow, no rhyme, or reason to this film. Angry that such a great cast and a clearly talented filmmaker wasted their time. It's ok to be angry, but anger without nuance just feels like a rant. And by the end, you simply don't feel like hearing it anymore.

I said Andrew Dominik is a talented filmmaker and I stand by that statement. Even in this film, it's abundantly clear that he's talented. This is only his third film, but you can tell he knows what he's doing behind the camera. And when you've made a movie like The Assassination of Jesse James (his 2nd film), you don't really need to say much more. The Assassination of Jesse James was a brilliant fucking film, it can't be overstated, and I must make that clear as I continue writing this. Maybe just to even remind myself. That was a film that was beautifully shot, with great performances all around. It was a slow burner of a movie, that contemplated its every move, but in doing that it actually made you feel remorse for a criminal like Jesse James and nothing but contempt for his killer, Robert Ford. It was nuanced. You felt contempt for Robert Ford, but in another way, you pitied him. Nothing was cut and dry in that film and that why it was so beautiful.

So what went wrong here? The problem stems from its painfully simple story: two dumb guys successfully rob a mob protected poker game which is run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Fingers are pointed, people are angry, so they turn to Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to set matters straight. Jackie's a hitman, he's given orders from Driver (Richard Jenkins) who basically speaks for the mafia. Jackie's plan is to off one guy and hire Mickey (James Gandolfini) to off the other. But Mickey turns out to be an unreliable drunk, so Jackie decides to take matters into his own hands.

That's pretty much the movie. Poker game gets robbed, people get killed. Meanwhile, as we constantly hear in the background of the film, the entire country is falling into economic ruin. The subtext may be interesting, but the approach is all wrong and the story is too simple and poorly-constructed to make us care about the subtext. Everything is just too blatant and obvious. It's like hearing someone constantly ranting and raving, it gets tiring by the end. We get it. By the end, the subtext becomes so heavy-handed that you wonder why it's there in the first place.

This is a flat, lifeless film that actually contains some decent performances from Pitt, Gandolfini, Jenkins, and the two dumb criminals Johnny and Frankie (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). They're all solid to an extent, but aside from Brad Pitt, the rest aren't really given much to do. Pitt's character seems to be the only one who knows what he's doing, but too much time is spent on him listening and reacting. By the time he finally gets to shoot and kill people, it feels like an afterthought.

The Assassination of Jesse James was remarkably crafted, but the way the story is crafted in Killing Them Softly leaves a lot to be desired. Too often it feels we're going from one scene to the next without there being a sense of flow and continuation between them.  Johnny and Frankie meet, they talk, they talk to their boss. Jackie and Driver talk in the car. Then they talk in the car again. Then Jackie meets with Mickey, then talks to Mickey at a bar. Then in a hotel room. It all has this "cut and paste" feeling, like it's just going through the motions. There's no flow between the scenes. No sense that anything is escalating. No sense of tension. It's just flat all around. If Dominik succeeded anywhere, it's managing to suck the life out of all of these scenes. Even when there are scenes that are funny, it still feels lifeless. There are indeed some funny scenes here and there, but it's all based on your run-of-the-mill, simple-minded gang talk about the last time they got laid. It might make you chuckle, but it's not exactly inspired material.

And you know, there are times when Dominik's brilliance comes through. There are just enough bits and pieces here and there that keeps this from being truly terrible. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. It gets to the point where you really have to look to find the positives of this film. I am thoroughly disappointed. Great filmmaker, great actors, great crew, and it just adds to disappointment. A complete misfire. I felt like this film would be better in the form of a written essay where Andrew Dominik can list to us all the problems he has with the world, because in movie form, it just doesn't work.

I can go on further into the negatives but I'll stop there. Look, Andrew Dominik's gonna make more great films. He's young. This is just film number three. You can't just make The Assassination of Jesse James and not go back to greatness again. A majority of critics seem to even like this film so who knows, maybe I'm crazy. I give Andrew Dominik a B, maybe a B+ for the effort... at least he tried. But the execution was all wrong to me. This is a film that doesn't raise any questions, nor does it make any statements, it's just one loud rant that's not worth listening to.

Grade: D

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