Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Killing Them Softly

"America is not a country, it's a business."

Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the picture of efficiency. He's the sort of guy in fiction who is often referred to as a "cleaner."  An independent contractor who forever dispenses advice on how to get the job done and when others entrusted can't quite get it together, he'll dirty his own hands without hesitation. He eschews acknowledgment of emotions - his own and those of his colleagues and certainly of his victims. He "kills them softly" from a distance, when possible. He'll nary bat an eye when killing a guy he knows is innocent of a particular crime just to use him as an example. He's the ultimate poster boy for "it's not personal, it's business."

Cogan is brought in to clean a mess.  A guy named Markie Trattman (a bloated Ray Liotta) finds himself marked for death after 2 lowlifes successfully stick up his weekly high stakes poker game. At the tables are mafiosos in the Organization who cock eyebrows as they remember a similar disruption from years ago - one that Trattman had eventually brazenly admitted to masterminding. Somehow, he escaped retribution from his hoodwinked cardsharps. He may not be so lucky this time, and that's what an outside guy known as "Squirrel" (who hires the pair of halfwits) is counting on. Markie, a self-proclaimed liar, will certainly be blamed for it.

Cogan therefore will rectify the situation. Mainly, to reinstill confidence among the players that their game is stable. While there are several potholes along the way, including the hired gun gone to seed named Mickey (James Gandolfini), what Cogan says will come to pass.  End of story.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik's KILLING THEM SOFTLY, based on the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, is an effort to tell a Mob tale without the usual mythos. The kind of larger-than-life grandeur seen in THE GODFATHER trilogy and GOODFELLAS.  Also, in crime films like HEAT. KILLING rather attempts to show the matter of fact, sometimes mundane and often brutal, daily mafia business and politics.

Such an apt metaphor for that other business known as the U.S.A. Cogan spends the final moments of the movie lecturing a Mob liasion known only as "Driver", (appropriate, as we usually see him behind a steering wheel) played by the always reliable Richard Jenkins, about the state of affairs in our relatively young country. How we're not all equal, no matter what Presidential hopeful Barack Obama says in his speeches (heard throughout the movie, along with retorts by Bush and McCain - Dominik really wants you to get his points). There are low level employees and bosses. Predators and the eaten. The whole country. This movie takes place in late 2008, during one of the worst financial meltdowns in U.S. history.  It's an engrossing scene, one that played far more interestingly than what came before in the previous ninety minutes.

The entire film is awfully talky, with precious little violence for the faithful, though what's there is fairly harsh. And that dialogue is only listenable for a brief time. The director lets scenes go on far past where they should, particularly a hotel room monologue about Mickey's fondness for prostitutes that made me long for a shower. Gandolfini is quite good and natural here, as a formerly top notch hit man who's become immersed in booze and sexual conquests; an employee who's lost his edge and usefulness. But the scene becomes blindingly awful the longer it plays. It becomes a seeming improvisation.  As if a weaker Tony Soprano had diarrhea of the mouth.   Enough so that I wished that the camera had rolled out of film, the way it reportedly did when Spielberg was filming Robert Shaw's big speech in JAWS.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is also oddly schizophrenic.  It wants to be reminiscent of 1970s films like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and at times almost even feels like a John Cassavetes picture, but then also turns in those lengthy dialogue scenes that reek of Tarantino or even Michael Mann (mainly in THIEF). Most of the time there is no soundtrack scoring - an effective choice.  Then the occasional ironically used oldie record pops up, ala Tarantino again.

But the really puzzling moment comes when Cogan fires several slugs through a car window at his target, all in a slow motion ballet of bullets and glass that might've been impressive in say, 1993.  It's extremely showy and amateurish, a scene I would've expected in one of PULP FICTION's numerous violent clones, not within a more cerebral exercise like this film. It's a scene completely at odds with the rest of the picture. What was the director going for here?

It's really too bad, this movie. I admire Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Inevitably, there are some similar themes in KILLING THEM SOFTLY but they are buried by dreadfully bad pacing, poor editing, and a lack of focus.  Dominik's direction is at times stylish and the performances are fine, but his hand is heavy and the themes are presented with a regrettable lack of subtlety. This film finally just drove me nuts.

No comments: