the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Killing Them Softly (2012)


It’s too easy to say “Killing Them Softly” is a bad movie. It fails to work but we do see an individual’s vision and effort.  This might sound trivial but all too often features are akin to chain restaurants where a committee-centric group-think is on display. It is a relief to be able to say “the artist didn’t see this or that” rather than “headquarters didn’t hire the right firm to run the focus groups”.  The essential mistake of this work is the writer/director’s attempt to make a bold statement about America.  It is not surprising that Andrew Dominik is a foreigner.  This is especially true when you consider Brad Pitt’s closing monologue in which he skewers Thomas Jefferson and the hypocrisy of American political myths. America has a proud tradition of jingoistic nationalism and we come across as too serious and severe in matters of religion and morality. Our moments of self-criticism, however, are more opaque. The “nattering nabobs of negativism” are either cloaked in tweed at the academy or t-shirts in the commune. They ain’t packing heat running around the street. The entrepreneurial gangster, if they reflect on politics at all, would never be harsh. That is the genius of this country; even our crooks are patriots. This is the tragic flaw that undermines Mr. Dominik’s whole endeavor.

For an genuine American portrait of low level robbers and hitmen turn to Springsteen’s “Born To Run” album: Meeting Across the River. This is a simple 215 word, lightly orchestrated tune about a down and out loser looking for the “big score”. This is the cornerstone plot-point in Mr. Dominik’s work.  Springsteen gives us a heart-wrenching portrait of people he knows:

And tonight's gonna be everything that I said
And when I walk through that door
I'm just gonna throw that money on the bed
She'll see this time I wasn't just talking
Then I'm gonna go out walking

Mr. Dominik gives us pages and pages of dialogue and MTV imagery of killings and blustery speeches delivered with gusto by top actors... and yet it’s Mr. Springsteen minimalist sketch that communicates everything that Mr. Dominik was trying to say.  It is important to note that other excellent foreign directors have stumbled in trying to make bold pronouncements about the schizophrenic contradictions of the land of opportunity.  Antonio’s “Zabriski Point”, although brilliant, shows little understand of the home of the brave. Americans don’t reflect much on our political state - we leave that to the French (de Tocqueville or Bernard-Henri Levy). Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini should have taken a cue from Coppola’s taciturn heavies who philosophize and moralize with simple curt pronouncements: we’re making you an offer you can’t refuse. There is a moment where Pitt tries to channel these potent warnings - but this quickly deflates into a clumsily masked DISCUSSION. We don’t go to the movies to see gangsters discuss - we want them glaring and strutting - think of many Scorsese moments - for example DeNiro sucking down a cigarette in “Goodfellas” as he stares at a partner who has made a scene. That partner is DEAD. You know it. In Dominik’s work you know it but.... you don’t really care as the “reveals” short-circuit themselves so the gad guys have no charge.

There is a prop in this film that is the perfect metaphor for “Killing Them Softly” - the sawed-off shotgun.  One of the low-end criminals produces a shotgun that is so “sawed” (i.e. shortened) that it looks ridiculous. In fact the co-bandit makes fun of it. The idea is that these down and out losers can’t even buy the right guns. They are uncomfortable, meandering and out of sorts.  There weapons don’t even make sense. This is Mr. Dominik’s major themes but unfortunately it is the film itself and not the characters who beg clarification.  After the initial hold up of the card game, the movie goes on a journey which reminded me of the incongruousness of that gun. There is the build up of the “mentor” Galiffino - who disappears off screen with a dialogue laden explanation.  There is the corporate Gangster who hires the elusive Brad Pitt - both these characters seem under or over-exposed - you haven’t known them enough but you’re afraid you know them too much; in the end don’t really care either way.  Every scene is peppered with Bush, Obama or Paulson reflecting on the ’08 financial crisis. Where is all this going? Let’s turn to an Italian director who go it somewhat right: Sergio Leon. His gangster epic “Once Upon a Time in America” gave answers. That film was bombastic and simplistic, however there are clearly drawn sagas which give an overarching coherence to the narrative. It also has a political undertones which genuinely speak to issues of community and fairness in the American system. “Killing Them Softly” opens up grandiose themes that are lost in endless sophomoric rants and journeys.

There are two defenses the director might put forth: 1. this is a black comedy and 2. the studio got in the way. In addressing the first argument: “Killing Them Softly” is not funny and therefore NOT a comedy (not even in the Russian social-satire sense of the word). This feature fails to elicit even a wry smile - Chekov’s “The Seagull” is slapstick compared to Mr. Dominik’s work.   In terms of the studio: I have not bothered to read about anything connected with the production of this film but I have little doubt there is AT LEAST another 90 minutes of material on the cutting room floor. Filmmakers are on a quest to find the missing footage in von Stroheim’s “Greed” or Capra’s “Lost Horizon”.  No one, save Mr. Dominik, would be able to endure MORE of “Killing Them Softly”. If the suits at headquarters cut large swaths of plotline from this feature the remaining footage shows their fears were justified. They are NOT GUILTY; the director will take full responsibility for the crime.  Were I to meet the Dominik I would not harp too much on this project. He’s young. He clearly has talent. It is impressive that he has managed to line up so much industry fire-power behind his project. I’d pat him on the back and mutter: “Kid you gonna do a job... bring the right gun”.  Then I’d walk away, turn around and say very firmly “you owe be $9 and 97 minutes.”

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