Friday 21 September 2012

"Killing Them Softly" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

“You take what you can get.” That’s the refrain of Andrew Dominik’s grungy crime thriller Killing Them Softly, which puts on screen a whole lotta making-do and scraping-by; each frame is squeezed for maximum desperation. It’s 2008, and with America’s finances teetering and candidates Obama and McCain offering promises of change, we’re returned to the mire: a nameless anywheresville of boarded-up properties and empty lots. Low-level hood Frankie (Scoot McNairy) has picked sweaty Aussie sociopath Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help turn over a Mob-controlled card game. This isn’t anybody’s best idea. Still, you take what you can.

The first thing you notice – other than the all-pervasive poverty – is that after the faux-Malickisms of 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James…, Dominik appears to have moved back in the direction of his 2000 breakthrough Chopper. These gangsters are soon spinning tall tales, chewing over past glories: practically every actor on screen gets a monologue for their troubles, often two. When the Mob sends in Brad Pitt’s Cogan to tidy up this mess, the pulse is briefly allowed to quicken, though even this angel of death proves prone to editorialising: seeing what everybody’s been reduced to, his response is a curt “Jeez, this country is f**ked”.

The source is “Cogan’s Trade”, George V. Higgins’ 1970-era dimestore novel, and it’s an indictment of forty years of non-leadership that its murderous scrabblings adapt this easily to the present economic situation. Even the music (Johnny Cash, the Velvets) remains the same; indeed, by the time Dominik wheels out “Paper Moon” for the finale, we appear to be backpedalling towards the Depression. Retained from that 1930s gangster cycle is the idea that the Mob’s infrastructure mirrors that of legit society. When Pitt reveals a preference for killing his victims softly, “from a distance”, he could be any executive officer plotting his next round of lay-offs.

Yet the champagne and furs Edward G. Robinson once provided for his molls have vanished: the idea’s that no-one’s getting remotely rich here, and even Pitt’s wisest of wiseguys struggles to claim the bonus he’s negotiated. This poses a credibility problem for the film, which spends a lot of Weinstein Company money making you notice how low-rent it’s being. Dominik, for his part, remains fond of a preening kind of style, with occasional good reason: the show-offy assassinations, casting the corpses in secondhand Edward Hopper light, have to mitigate against the film’s latent talkiness.

David Thomson recently accused Hollywood of snuffing out the can-do optimism that sustained cinemagoers through the first Depression. Dominik’s film, practically Exhibit A for the prosecution, is watchable and clever-ish, but increasingly comes to trade on our cynicism. Beneath its black-comic pleasures, the plotting gets sloppy, and hardly requires the actors to surprise us: yes, James Gandolfini plays a mobster, although he goes AWOL after just two scenes. There’s craft and some substance here, certainly; I just question whether Dominik does anything truly revelatory or constructive with the mood he catches. Like the man says: take what you can.

Killing Them Softly opens nationwide today.

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