KILLING THEM SOFTLY is the latest movie from the incredibly talented and anti-prolific writer/director Andrew Dominik, who made CHOPPER in Australia in 2000 and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD in the U.S. in 2007. Both of those films were among the best films released in each of those years (the latter is one of the greatest American films of the past decade), and this new film is, in my opinion, one of the best films of 2012, a crowded year for quality cinema.
However, the story seemingly being written in many major outlets is one of failure. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD starred Brad Pitt, one of the most famous men in the world, and still only made back a fraction of its budget (though it’s a solid home-video seller since its highly-deserved reputation has steadily increased.) KILLING THEM SOFTLY reteamed the filmmaker and star and has fared slightly better, having cost half as much as their earlier collaboration and having now earned back its budget after two weeks of release. But since these can’t be considered hits, the kind of ghouls who look at box-office returns in the same light as horse races have inevitably dismissed KILLING THEM SOFTLY. All they can manage to think about is numbers. Now if you’ve seen the film already, you may be smiling. It’s so fucking on point.
Personally, I don’t care one bit about box office. I care about movies. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is an excellent example of such. And when we’re talking about the films Andrew Dominik has made so far, we’re talking about art. But business is at the heart of the piece of art Dominik has made this time out. And I do think it’s interesting to look at why this particular film might not have resonated with large audiences upon its initial run. There are a couple of reasons.
For one thing, KILLING THEM SOFTLY has a very unconventional story structure. It’s essentially a series of long, detailed conversations, occasionally bookended by savage violence. This hews closely to the source novel, COGAN’S TRADE by George V. Higgins. Higgins was a Boston novelist who was possibly most famous for his first novel, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and its terrific 1973 film adaptation by Peter Yates starring Robert Mitchum. Higgins had a remarkable ear for genuine-sounding dialogue, a tremendous sense of detail in the atmosphere he created, and an interest in the drab ugliness of crime, all of which are qualities which KILLING THEM SOFTLY effectively transposes onto film.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY opens with a sidewalk meeting between two genuine lowlifes, Frankie and Russell. Frankie is played by Scoot McNairy, who broke out in 2010’s MONSTERS and has a key role in this year’s ARGO. Russell is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who was scarily-effective in 2010’s ANIMAL KINGDOM and was consigned to a generic bad-guy role in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. If you’ve seen either of these guys before, you won’t recognize them in this movie. Russell is a junkie and a possible sex offender (judging by the way he talks about women) who looks like he just rolled out of bed under an outhouse, and Frankie is only slightly more distinguished by comparison. Neither seems to be in reaching distance of a thought, yet these are the guys Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, best known as Johnny Sack from THE SOPRANOS) recruits to rob a high-stakes underworld poker game.
Interesting thing about the mob guys in this movie – none of them are seen doing anything more momentous than playing poker in the back of a B-grade restaurant. A guy named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) runs the game, and actually had it robbed himself, a couple years back, even admitted it, but since everyone likes Markie, he got away with it. Amato figures that if the game gets robbed again, everyone’ll look to Markie while the three of them can split the score three ways.
The poker-game robbery is a remarkable feat of suspense on the part of the filmmakers. It’s not spoiling any plot to say that Frankie and Russell are doomed men from the first moment we lay eyes on them – the question is only of when. The directorial choices by Dominik, along with the near-tactile cinematography by Greig Fraser (LET ME IN, ZERO DARK THIRTY) and the ace editing by John Paul Horstmann and Brian A. Kates, all add up to a mini-masterpiece of tension, one of the scariest cinematic sequences of the year. It’s both in the way it’s played, and also in the power of expectation we’ve all accumulated from decades of gangster movies. You’re just waiting for one or both of these two lame-brained stick-up men to mess up, for one of these mean-looking mob types to stand up and murder them. But somehow, Frankie and Russell make off with the money.
It’s a good half an hour before the above-the-title guy enters the movie. Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, junior partner to Dillon (Sam Shepard), both outside contractors who are brought in by the mob to dispose of problems like this one. There’s a ethnic undercurrent suggested here, that the Italians are outsourcing to the Irish, but the movie doesn’t need to linger long upon it. Cogan is briefed by a somewhat nervous suit-and-tie type, referred to as Driver in the credits and played by Richard Jenkins, who played a very similar role in this year’s CABIN IN THE WOODS because there is no one better at it. Driver speaks for the unseen higher-ups in the organization – they want Markie to pay. They know it wasn’t him who hit the poker game, but it’s all about perceptions. Cogan has his own ideas of how it should go down, but ultimately he goes in the direction he’s paid.
The rest of the movie is all about the way that “justice” is distributed. Henchmen hiring henchmen to get rid of henchmen, without an in-person appearance from anyone at the top. Hell, even Dillon drops out of the movie after a brief scene, leaving the to-do list to Cogan. It’s telling of the perversely ordinary nature of this so-called mob movie that a killer like Dillon played by a known actor like Sam Shepard is written out off-screen – and by natural causes, not an act of violence. It’s all agenda. Nothing’s personal.
However, like the poker heist, the few scenes of violence are remarkably indelible. The way that Johnny Amato is “taken care of” is a long, deliberate sequence of scenes, wherein Cogan makes Frankie an accessory to the act. The killing itself is marked by incredible sound design and off-center framing choices. Every murder in this movie, every punch, feels as real as a movie can make it feel. Ray Liotta’s character gets it the worst. He gets beaten to a pulp by a pair of less-than-intimidating hoods, in an extended scene that unlike similar scenes in many, many movies, offers no kind of vicarious pleasure. And that’s before the inevitable rub-out. Dominik draws these scenes out as long as cinematically possible, and in so doing he makes the hurt register. I can’t say that the movie doesn’t look beautiful, because KILLING THEM SOFTLY is impeccably framed and filmed, but again, unlike so many action scenes in crime movies, you wouldn’t want to come within a mile of what’s happening on screen here.
This isn’t a movie that aims to make you feel bad about violence, exactly, but it is one willing to show the toll a life of killing takes on the killers. The tone isn’t mournful, like UNFORGIVEN, but instead caustic and seriocomic. This arrives clearest in the form of Mickey, the sub-sub-contractor who Cogan initially hires to take care of the situation. Mickey is the best killer Cogan knows, the best man for the job, and when he shows up, indeed, we the audience expect he can get it done, because he’s played by James Gandolfini, star of seven superlative seasons of THE SOPRANOS. Only instead of getting it done, Mickey drinks to alarming excess, even for a man of his intimidating size, and disappears for days in a hotel room with whores and drugs. Now Cogan has a personnel problem to handle.
Again, while this may make the movie sound episodic and haphazardly structured to some, there is a method to this madness. What THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES did for Westerns, KILLING THEM SOFTLY does for the gangster picture. It’s not an accident that this movie features both Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, both of them the lead actors in the two most significant cinematic mafia epics of my lifetime. Liotta isn’t exactly doing a riff on Henry Hill (although he does do that insane Joker laugh at least once), but Gandolfini is absolutely playing Rock-Bottom Tony Soprano. He even does the voice! These aren’t accidents. In KILLING THEM SOFTLY, Dominik is taking the viewer on a twisted sight-seeing tour of the modern gangster picture, and it’s a horror show. Or a haunted house. Some of these monsters are ghosts already.
In KILLING THEM SOFTLY, this whole mob business is depicted as low-rent money-making machinery, policed by guys like Pitt’s Cogan and Shepard’s Dillon, officed by middle-management like Jenkins’ Driver, and inefficiently water-tight, so that it’s open to sewer rats like McNairy’s Frankie and Mendelsohn’s Russell. There’s no honor amongst thieves – forget that – there aren’t even anti-heroic virtues like snappy banter or charisma. Even the guys you like in the movie, you only like because of the actors playing them. This is not a movie that was focus-grouped with an eye towards accessibility.
Now, this goes some distance towards explaining the whole box-office question. Most moviegoers aren’t immediately turned on by deconstructionist genre pictures. Andrew Dominik is making 1970s movies in the 21st century. They’re great, but for ADHD attention spans they take some warming up to. And this one has some overt political subtext to boot (which I’ve not commented upon because it’s fairly obvious when you see the movie – still sharp commentary, but very apparent.) This movie is meant more to prod reflection and conversation than to make a crowd giggle and clap. So that’s the trade-off. Not many people rushed out to see it. But posterity doesn’t give a fuck about box office, and posterity will be very fucking kind to this film.
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