Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 07/02/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThis time of year is a good occasion for Americans to take stock of their country, and, in most cases, we should feel a patriotic appreciation for the freedoms which we enjoy and rely upon.  But, at other times, such introspection can reveal darker sides to our country.

Take KILLING THEM SOFTLY, a gritty and downbeat, quirky and idiosyncratic trip through the underbelly of America, directed and adapted (from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins) by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt, which was released late last year to general indifference at the box office. Here was a noir-ish gangster film with more talk than action, more subtext about the economy and politics than violence, and an ending startlingly anticlimactic: sins of the genre sufficient to send the devotees of Don Corleone running for the exits. The terrain here may look familiar but this is clearly no ordinary gangster movie.

The action, taking place in and around a barren and scarred Boston landscape—though, in a bit of cognitive dissonance, actually filmed in New Orleans!—begins when a pair of low-level hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), are employed by Johnny the “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) to rip off a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  By framing Markie, who had robbed his own game some years before, they relax, believing that they have gotten away scot-free. Meanwhile, however, a shadowy representative of the Mafia named Driver (Richard Jenkins) meets with a hit man named Jackie Cogan (Pitt)—whose preference for dispatching targets quickly and quietly lends the film its title—as they begin to search for those responsible.  They, in turn, call in Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini), another hit man from New York who happens to have an unending appetite for women and booze. It does not take them long to find the culprits but they move slowly, more concerned as they are with restoring order to the criminal economy and regaining the confidence of their associates, even as the events of the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election play out ominously in the background.

This is the sort of film that was destined to be under-appreciated: Though it features a rich soundtrack throughout and a taut, beautifully-edited heist sequence early on there is little action and much talk afterwards.  What violence there is is of a slightly shocking nature, similar to that of the films of Paul Verhoeven: it turns your stomach a little bit, both drawing attention to and de-glamorizing the actions themselves.

But the satire is cogent and the dialogue, though heavy at times, pays handsome dividends, partly because the cast is so extraordinary. Pitt is excellent, cast against type as the merciless Jackie, the stone-cold  heart of this fable, whose methods of dealing with his victims are as succinct as his stark observations on the American condition. Liotta is good, also a little against-type, playing a pathetic, low-rung hanger-on. Mendelsohn is wonderful playing a deranged, disheveled dog-napper and heroin addict (he is also good in the recent PLACE BEYOND THE PINES). And, of course, the late, great Gandolfini as the fatalistic Mickey, sparring with Jackie—a sort of Old America vs. New—forced to defend a way of life even as it quickly slips away. Mickey is a man who has outlived his moment and is seemingly out-of-place with the strange tenor of the present, a dinosaur headed for certain extinction.

The cinematography, by Greig Fraser (responsible for the recent ZERO DARK THIRTY), is beautifully lensed, depicting a stark, faded American landscape. The film begins with a dissonant collage of sounds and images and ends with a fantastic monologue by Pitt’s Jackie—alone worth the price of admission—culminating in some of the most stunningly cynical lines in recent movie history: you have to hear it to believe it! Lost in the clutter, Killing Them Softly proves itself to be a remarkably cold and assured slice of American noir with a lot to say about the times that we are living in.

Dominik’s writing and directing debut was CHOPPER (2000), an audacious and stylish crime comedy/drama starring a hulking and hilarious Eric Bana playing the real-life title character, a convict and author famed in his native Australia for his books detailing his own criminal exploits. In 2007, Dominik directed THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, an epic imagining of the myth-making process which lies at the heart of the Old West and, in this case, one of its core figures. The film was partly notable for eliciting excellent performances from Brad Pitt, as Jesse James, and, especially, Casey Affleck as the moody and neurotic, desperate-for-fame-and-attention Robert Ford. Dominik, a New Zealand native, seems to be intent, for the time being, on reconfiguring classic American genres (for more on the “foreign perspective’ in Hollywood see last week’s review of STOKER): by all early indications he seems to be the right man for the job.

Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are both available in our Best-of-the-Best section.  For another film adapted from the work of the Beantown-Noir specialist George V. Higgins check out the classic THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum, available in Best Crime and Gangster!