Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Killing Them Softly (2012) – Review

Review: Killing Them Softly is an arty thinking-man’s gangster film. It is about two loser thugs, Frankie and Russell, who knock off a mob-protected card game, and the man sent in to clean up the mess, Jackie.

Right from the start, it is clear that writer-director Andrew Dominik is not interested in making just another crime drama or typical gangster film (though, clearly he is very much influenced by past works in the genre – particularly Goodfellas). Killing Them Softly opens with sort of a sonic barrage – as the titles accompanied by loud ambient noise are cross-cut with a man walking out of a factory or warehouse while political news coverage plays almost like voiceover narration. This opening shot sets up the rest of the film, which plays as sort of a mix between an art film, a satire on the economic crisis and capitalism in general, and a straightforward crime drama.

As a piece of art, Killing Them Softly is brilliant. Dominik and company are not afraid to express the violence and effects of drug use in a visual manner that goes beyond merely showing the audience what it is happening – it tries to illicit an emotional response and put the audience in the position of the characters. Two examples: there is a scene between Frankie and Russell, after they have pulled off the job. Russell has bought some drugs and taken some of them. Frankie is talking to Russell about how well the job went and Russell is going in and out of consciousness, but is still slowly delivering details to Frankie. Russell eventually explains that there is a hit out on them and that the mob bosses know it was them who robbed the card game, and thusly Frankie is desperate to find out more from Russell but he is completely wasted. Yet, Dominik does not just play this out for the audience. He creates the experience for the audience putting them in the place of both characters. The sound slows down and the pitch changes, the screen goes in and out of focus and brightness. All this heightens the anxiety and frustration that Frankie has, trying to get information out of Russell, and so the audience feels it too. Another example: Jackie is told to kill Markie, the man who ran the card game that got held up. Dominik shoots Jackie’s execution of Markie in extreme slow motion, with graphic detail. The audience can practically see each bullet leave Jackie’s gun, fly through the air and enter and destroy Markie. By slowing it down and unflinchingly showcasing the violence, Dominik is again creating an experience for the audience. They do not just see Markie die, they feel it, which is much more profound an experience. These scenes both also have a wonderful artistic flare to them, setting this film apart from what most movies feel like and look like.

The satirical nature of the film is both blatant and also easily missed. In almost every scene, there is a TV or radio playing political news coverage detailing the financial collapse of 2008 and the need for a bailout, seemingly setting the stage. This constant stream of talking heads in the background (seemingly replacing a score) is juxtaposed to both the filming locations of particularly dilapidated and abandoned industrial buildings and slums of New Orleans, along with a few bars and a hotel room, and characters that are almost solely comprised of low lives and criminals. Looking first at the locations used – the talking heads focus on the collapsing economy in the present (2008), but the exterior locations in the film have long been decaying and forgotten, indicating that the true rot that caused the financial collapse has been a long time coming, eating away at America from the inside.

Next, looking at the characters – all of them are selfish, greedy and seemingly void of any kind of real compassion and drive (save for maybe Jackie). It is possible to view these criminals as the proponents of our capitalist system in a way. Take Mickey (the hit man Jackie hires from out of town to help him), all he does is drink, hire prostitutes, spend the mob bosses’ money,  and not accomplish what he was hired to do – he is a complete waste and drain on his employers. Mickey can be viewed as say Wall Street (in today’s times) – he lives well off the good will of Jackie (an entity brought in to help get things going again – get money back on the street and flowing again) and the mob bosses, while not doing what he is hired to do nor contributing anything of use, rather he is wasting their money on himself (and it is no mistake that he is presented as completely unlikable, vulgar and a mess). The mob bosses could be taken as the government unable to come to a decision on anything, just letting the problem(s) compound, or just as the system itself. And finally, Frankie and Russell can be viewed as two people within the system that messed up and caused the money to drive up (like a failed bank), because their backer Johnny Amato thought he could selfishly and greedily beat (or rig) the system. They gambled and lost (like the investment bankers with mortgage backed securities). Everyone in the system (all the characters) come off looking bad, except for maybe Jackie, who in the end turns out to really be no different (as his final lines are: “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”). He is just as firmly rooted in the system as the rest of them. Jackie is the bailout. As a satire, the film takes a very harsh look at America’s current capitalist system.

Now, as a straight-forward crime drama, for those not wanting to look any deeper, it works just as well as its does a satire or an art film. It is built on great characters and strong performance, and not so much on action. Most of the scenes are comprised of characters engaged in conversations, and these series of conversations build until the finale. However, within in each conversation there is a lot of tension and drama built in. Dominik and the actors deliver just as much emotion in these scenes, showcasing the give and take between characters – who has the upper hand in any given scene – as any action scene, though action scenes are probably more appealing for the average viewer. The film does have some action, though it is mostly highly stylized for effect and not entertainment. This crime drama is about the characters, not gangsters shooting at each other and explosions.

While the film is fairly brilliant in its artistry and construction, the pacing can feel a bit slow at times, and this gets back to its structure – being built around multiple conversations between characters, lacking action – and Dominik’s shooting style for the film. The conversations are long and the cuts do not come quickly, rather Dominik allows his actors and their performances to dominate each scene, as the film takes its time. But, for some viewers the net effect of this is going to be a slow film, which is not working for them (as often artier films do not work for average viewers).

Killing Them Softly is unlike most crime dramas and gangster films. It dares to be aesthetically relevant, emotionally compelling and intellectually engaging all at the same time. It is the rare film that strives to be more than just entertainment, but mean something. And, it succeeds fantastically (for those willing to take in the full experience).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Andrew Dominik has now made three films. His last two have been near masterpieces (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most impressive films of the last decade, that no one has seen), allowing me to confidently name film as an auteur filmmaker. His work just has too much aesthetic aptitude and emotional/intellectual depth to be denied. He is one of the best filmmakers working right now. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

The film does not have a score; rather it has a background ambiance of talking heads and a great classic rock soundtrack, each serving a specific purpose. The talking heads play into the satire that Dominik is creating, while the soundtrack creates an emotion in the viewer when set against the visuals (much like how The Sopranos often also used classic rock to create a certain mood for the visuals). Greig Fraser’s cinematography is wonderful. Killing Them Softly has such a decrepit look to it. Fraser’s lighting and Patricia Norris’s production design create a world that almost feels post-apocalyptic, filled with old cars, broken down buildings and people, and stormy skies. Fraser’s artistic work with Dominik on a few of the scenes (like those mentioned above) is also top notch. The film has both an emotional and visual edge and splendor to it.

Like with all great dramas, the performances are astonishing. Richard Jenkins is good in his small role as the go-between for Jackie and the mob bosses, playing his character as someone who is fed up but goes along with everything anyway. James Gandolfini is somewhat reminiscent of Tony Soprano at his psychologically and emotionally weakest point. Mickey is a killer, completely emotionally incapacitated by the potential loss of his wife and prospect of jail (but is much more unlikable than Tony – lacking the charisma). Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy play Russell and Frankie and are both wonderful. They are just losers caught up in the system, they do not really understand how it works or their place in it, and they do not really care to know. (Assuming people actually see this film, which is probably a losing proposition, considering its artistic and narrative ambitions) their performances are strong enough to warrant their casting in many future projects. Brad Pitt is brilliant in the film (and it is probably among his best work to date – I would argue his other collaboration with Dominik yielded his best performance). He plays Jackie to be a gangster seemingly struggling upstream – the only competent operator in the system. He is ruthless, but has a wonderful swagger to him. The audience is not quite sure if what they see in Jackie is his true character (is he really a good guy deep down) or is it merely his skill in manipulating those around him to get the result he wants. It is one of the best performances of 2012.

Summary & score: It is easy to think of movies as purely entertainment, and often that is all they are or strive to be, but from time to time filmmakers shoot for something more. Killing Them Softly is a shining example of a film in which those involved wanted to create a full experience, not only entertaining the audience but also engaging their minds and emotions. 8/10

1 comment:

  1. Good review Geoffrey. It could have been a bit tighter and gotten rid of it's annoying political-message, but still does a great job with building suspense and tension just through long scenes of just talking and exposition.