Thursday, December 6, 2012

Killing Them Softly, A Political Parable

     In 1982, a new form of research about upcoming films (other than reviews) was introduced into the media: it was called CinemaScore. CinemaScore surveys film audiences as they leave the theater and gauges their reactions to the films they just witnessed. The surveyors ask each member of the audience to give the film a letter grade, and the average letter grade of all of the polled data for a specific film becomes that film's CinemaScore. Letter grades in general are sort of arbitrary when it comes to rating and reviewing forms of art; words and the content of reviews clearly mean much more. So why am I mentioning this form of rating? Well, here are some examples of recent films and their CinemaScores:

Taken 2: B+
The newest Twilight: A
Alex Cross (starring Tyler Perry) A
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: A
Fast Five: A

What do these movies have in common? None of them are worthy of such high grades. It's all uninspired or unoriginal or unrealistic dreck. Consequently, when I heard that Killing Them Softly, the new film by Andrew Dominik (the director of 2007's wonderful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), received an "F"--one of only 8 films ever to receive that grade--on the notoriously inaccurate CinemaScore, I was even more interested to see it. And my excitement was certainly well-justified: Killing Them Softly is a really good American film, a story about how even gangsters were susceptible to the economic recession that is filled with unlucky criminals, hitmen, snappy-vulgar dialogue, and flashes of brutal, realistic violence.
     Within a few seconds after the lights in the theater dim and Killing Them Softly starts, two things are clear: Andrew Dominick is a director with an incredible visual flourish and this is a film that is very present in its political metaphors. Barack Obama's voice from an important speech is cut back and forth with eerie music and views of a criminal who is barely surviving. This man, an Australian drug addict named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and his friend, the nervous Frankie (Scoot McNairy), are two scum-suckers who get talked into a seemingly easy job by their sort-of boss: they are to rob a big-buy-in cash card game filled with gangster players. This game is run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta, in a different role than normal, playing off of his typical typecasting), a man who hired two other dudes to rob the first card game he arranged, pretending he was one of the victims and splitting the cash afterwards. The beauty of this job is simple: these dangerous men playing in the high-stakes game will think that Mark has pulled the same shit again, and he will get blamed for this card-game incident. Russell and Frankie will be able to ride off into the sunset as Markie gets whacked, even though he wasn't actually in on this robbery.
     Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a man who solves mob problems, generally with the barrel and bullet of a gun. One of his rules is he doesn't like to kill anyone that he knows...doesn't want to get close to them. When that happens, emotion tends to get in the way. He likes to "kill them softly", from a distance, so he doesn't have to feel guilt or smell the piss that dribbles down the soon-to-be-dead man's pants. Pitt displays much of the same calm ferocity that he showcased in Assassination of Jesse James. He is great, as usual. As things happen, and more people need to die, Cogan often meets with a higher-up, kind-of middle man executive to the decision-making CEO's of the crime syndicate named Driver (Richard Jenkins). These conversational scenes echo the same problems of normal civilian employees in America: the inability to give out more money and the carefulness that business owners feel when their revenue stream has taken a major hit.
     One surprise in Killing Them Softly was the great James Gandolfini (I hope I don't have to tell you of The Sopranos fame...), portraying a character named Mickey who is brought into town by Cogan to perform one of the violent hits. It's been a few years since Cogan has worked with Mickey, and the years haven't been kind: because of money and marital problems and a violent alcoholism, Mickey has become fat and angry, spewing vulgarities at the nice waiters who serve him his drinks and nice whores who service his sex drive. He paints a great picture of what men like this must end up as when the money runs out and they have no use anymore. The real star of Killing Them Softly, though, is director Andrew Dominik and his skillful use of the camera. The film--other than the occasional bangs of bloody violence--is mainly a bunch of conversations about who should and who shouldn't die as America's economy is crumbling. But even the most normally-boring conversations, like one between Russell and Frankie as Russell is in a semi-sleep state due to drugs and exhaustion, are inspired and beautiful to watch. Or take one scene of slow-mo killing (a technique that has become incredibly stale since The Matrix) that is transfixing, even though is uses Bullet-Time! Truly visionary stuff.
     Sure, sometimes the political underpinnings that show up during many scenes in Killing Them Softly are heavy-handed and a bit obvious: we don't need a radio soundbite of George Bush speaking at a convention or a news clip of Barack Obama on a bar television screen to draw similarities to the situations that the film's characters face. And sure, this also isn't new territory in regards to story: much of this has been done before on dozens of occasions throughout the last twenty years of film and television. But the combination of all the aspects--the great cast, the snappy script, and specifically Dominik's direction--adds up to a small and worthwhile film that depicts how violent men who make their money illegally deal with a collapsing economic system.     (B+)

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