Killing Them Softly
When a gangster movie, without a civilian in sight, is set to the soundtrack of American politicians mouthing words they don’t believe in, you know the director is trying to do something different.And when the period becomes the autumn of 2008 when the global economy went into a tailspin along with the election of Barrack Obama as Americas first African-American president, we know that we are looking at an unlikely recipe.This film is based on a 1975 novel by George V. Higgins, a master of hard-boiled gangster dramas with a gift for dialogue and set in 2008 in a barely recognizable post Katrina New Orleans.
The images are at once post apocalyptic, a completely stoned junkie wearing tattered clothes and bathed in cold sweat walk into the frame, the sky is overcast, the posters of Obama and McCain peer down at him in an improbable way, all this set to the soundtrack of Obama’s suave oratory.He steals dogs for a living and aspires to become a drug dealer, no doubt consuming a great deal of narcotics in the process.We learn that he is about to be recruited by his mobster friend into carrying out a hit on a high stakes poker game, with hardened criminals at the table.The laundry owner who is the mastermind of this heist figures that it’s a smart way to make some easy money.Ray Liotta who plays Markie Trattman appears the way we have left him in several other films, a victim of his own naiveté, but an aspiring criminal still.He once organized a hit on his own poker game, and got away with it.He lived to tell the tale years later, finding it so funny that tears stream down his face.His listeners gave him a pass then but if there is another similar incident he surely won’t get a second chance from the mob.This is the premise on which the trio act, they have a ready-made fall guy.
The hit goes as planned, the junkie duo walk away with the money and the mob calls in a contract killer Jackie Coogan played by Brad Pitt to settle scores. Pitt is handled by Driver played by Richard Jenkins, who appears more like an accountant than a mob front man.His middle management bearing and inept decision-making is drawn from the corporate world of Dilbert. Hank Paulson can also be heard on the radio at times giving his spiel on saving the economy .Given the political setting of the film it is one of the few gambits that succeed. Jackie is a very rational guy, of the opinion that they bump off Markie because his existence threatens the confidence of the criminal world and clams up the free flow of dirty money.Something like allowing Lehman to fail as too many Federal bailouts point to an incurable and intolerable weakness in Wall Street.
Meanwhile Pitt lays out his methods on the table, he likes to kill from a distance, up close the victims get too emotional and start pleading like kids.He like to kill softly.And to kill one of them he needs an accomplice since he does not like killing the people he knows.In walks the still sensational James Gandolfini as Mickey and provides the film with lots of entertaining dialogue.He mouths lines about his messed up marriage life and his obsession with prostitutes, all the while drinking way too much for Pitts comfort.Pitt course corrects and takes matters into his own hand right up to the end.
The cinematographer Greig Fraser uses a new Kodak film stock and custom-made lenses to achieve a blurry creamy texture that makes the film visually very interesting to look at. Along the way we get plenty of rain, brutal killings and a gut wrenching beating scene, but not a moment of genuine tension. In one scene a jet lagged Mickey toys with a nervous waiter in a combined homage to Joe Pesci’s “Tell me what’s funny ?“ scene from Goodfellas and Chigurh playing with “The Gas Station Proprietor” in No Country for Old Men. There are moments of dry humor and one wonders how Mr Tarantino might have handled this material.Or the Coen brothers or Scorsese for that matter.But Andrew Dominik is trying something different here and not quite succeeding.In fact the best moments of the film are his attempts to “uncopy” the Tarantino’s of the world, case in point being Mickey’s talkative character.
I was quite open to the premise of the film, a mobster film as a comment on the failing American political and economic system, unlike most American critics who see this as an attempt to malign America by a non-American director. Much in the same way Lars von Trier was not allowed to criticize America in Dogville. But it turns out that the closing piece of scorching dialogue mouthed by Jackie is not enough material for a wholly credible film.The ride is as cold and damp as the world inhibited by the characters. Dominik made the brooding The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward James Ford, dripping with internalized violence and homoerotic tones, here he delivers a barely watchable film.