Sunday, March 17, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Last of the Independents

 written and directed by Andrew Dominik
starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini,
Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn

Writer-director Andrew Dominik senses your itch for a bitter, black-coffee essay on the haplessness of small-time criminality and gives it a damn good scratch. Killing Them Softly comes gift-wrapped for all your whiskey-sodden bad moods — a grim, colorless, dirty-joke-on-the-way-to-the-electric-chair little yarn, adapted from a 1974 George V. Higgins novel, that's probably truer to the squalid, unfurnished lives of low-rent heist men and muscle for hire than any of the hip dialogue-laden romps we've come to associate with such characters.

Economic crisis befalls the underworld on the eve of Barack Obama's election to the White House: a pair of masked gunmen have just knocked over a poker game run by Mafia stooge Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Thanks to Markie's big mouth, everyone and his grandma knows he set up the robbery of one of his previous games — he laughs it off as if it were a locker-room anecdote about some fat girl he'd drunkenly nailed on spring break. Now, the mob is worried that, with the specter of yet another robbery hanging in the air — as well as the perception that nothing's being done about it — their games look about as attractive to the average high roller as a one-armed whore with the clap. Measures must be taken to restore confidence. Markie — though he's not responsible for this latest transgression — needs to be dealt with. Enter hit man extraordinaire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Cogan and his buttoned-up mob liaison Driver (Richard Jenkins) add the real perpetrators to the hit list: smacked-out Aussie dog-napper Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and jittery Frankie (Scoot McNairy), plus Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola of The Sopranos), the cleaning store owner who set the whole plan in motion. And if Jackie could stay within the meager confines of his recession-era budget and get the job done as quickly and as cleanly as possible, well, the bosses sure would appreciate it.

One needn't ponder why Dominik chose to lard Higgins' pulp-fiction roast with lumpy political-analogy gravy that parallels gangsters scrambling to fix a glitch in their easy-money machine with Obama & Co. bailing out Wall Street. (Reassuring soundbites from Dubya and Barry O bleat ironic counterpoint from every bar television and car radio.) Pitt's Jackie sums the film up for us: America is a business, he says, and cold, hard commerce is the engine driving every aspect of it, from business dealings and political maneuvers to — one presumes — personal relationships, marriages, friendships, whatever. Nothing is for "the good of the people" without first being good for the pockets of those who pull the strings — those sainted yet deeply hypocritical men named Thomas Jefferson or Barack Jesus Christ Obama, who sire slave children while stirring men with words of equality, or who preach sacrifice for the hand-to-mouth masses while shitting hundred-dollar bills and wiping their asses with fifties. No less a backdrop than Obama's election-night victory speech accompanies Jackie's nifty monologue, and it's followed immediately by "Money (That's What I Want)" chirping away on the soundtrack — subtle, this film ain't.

Then again, sledgehammers have their charms, too. Jackie explains his preference for "killing 'em softly" — i.e. from a distance, untouched by the complications of getting close to a sobbing, pissing-his-pants victim who's pleading for his life — and it calls to mind any number of lit candles held menacingly close to the country's paper ideals by button-pushing D.C. bureaucrats who never have to actually look at anyone, be they casualties in Iraq, the victims of umpteen U.S.-supported dictatorships, or tomorrow's fathers in army fatigues, sent to their graves halfway around the globe under the flimsiest of justifications. Now, though, as never before, the tide has turned inward; basic survival for ordinary taxpayers seems the rock of Sisyphus. America eats its young, as the Funkadelic album told us, and with employment rates and average household incomes still looking at the toilet and deciding to go for a nice, cool swim, the pickings are scrawnier than ever.

Killing Them Softly is the gangster film that crowns our era of downsized expectations with a king's fit. Dominik drains it of passion and all but the most bone-dry gallows humor, strips it to the barest of crime-plot mechanics without the slightest pretense toward larger-than-life outlaw excitement — or that hoary stand-by "honor among thieves." It's like a Tarantino script directed by someone who's seen too much to pretend — 97 minutes of watching dumb, sick animals totter blindly about as we sit there, waiting for the bear trap of their inevitable doom to close around their ankles. Ray Liotta's Markie has a bulls-eye on his forehead from the moment we meet him — the poor schmuck — and not a damn thing can erase it: not his poker-room chumminess with the fellas, not his essential harmlessness, not the money his games have raked in for the big boys over the years. He's puffy, a soft-boiled egg without even the protection of a shell, sodden from drink and fattened up on the assumption of good will that he thinks his years of harmless mook-ness have bought him. Even the goons tossing him through plate glass windows and pounding him until he returns his lunch don't exactly dislike the guy. But it's business, y'see — Mahatma-fucking-Gandhi himself couldn't stem the tide of ass-whoop, were he to come up short on his count at the end of the day. Markie's every luckless fuck-nuts hanging on by fraying threads of amiability that you've ever heard about if you hung around certain neighborhoods — you shake your head and laugh when your friend tells you about the latest stunt he's pulled and how they had to drag him into the back room and give 'im another beatin' before they fixed him a drink for his troubles. And then, your friend's telling you about the low turnout for his wake, and what a shame it was about that guy — and you shake your head and exhale into stale air. Some schmucks are better left forgotten.

James Gandolfini’s Mickey, flown in from Back East to assist in taking out the offending parties, shuffles off the plane like an overfed calf who'd downed his last swallow of Scotch and said, "why not?" after the universe tapped him on the shoulder and nodded toward the slaughterhouse. He's the career gangster as walking dead, a professional eraser worn to a nub, as numb and inadequate to the task of one more go-round as the cock he winds up pushing on half the whores in town. Gandolfini's exuded a certain weariness for most of his career. Trace that straight line running through his cavalcade of bearish thugs and natural born killers-for-hire and what you find is an actor sighing in resignation at the kinds of roles that his bulk and his physiognomy have confined him to — and yet, aware of the lived-in verisimilitude that he brings to these parts like none of his contemporaries. (His stabs at ordinary working guys tend to fit like suits made for smaller, lesser actors — they need tailoring, expansion.) It's a deal with the devil he seems to strike with each grinning, Jersey-esque sociopath he signs up for: yeah, I'll play another gangster, another alpha-male hard case, but I'm gonna give you a guy at the ass end of the life, a guy with a fate somebody long ago fired into the back of his head — it's just taken all these years to finally cut through all the booze and pussy. Mickey's obvious reference point would seem to be an older, wearier Virgil from Tony Scott's electric True Romance. (And it's a thrill to see Gandolfini and Pitt reunited here.) But Virgil wasn't yet ready for the pasture — he might have been "too old" to think to check under a bed for a suitcase full of coke but he could still get it up for the finer details of the job. Beating Alabama to a pulp was spontaneous bathroom-stall sex for a man walled off from all normal human sensation; sheer fire-hydrant release after the foreplay of Alabama's cock-tease of refusal and his Charles Whitman "bitch of the bunch" speech.

What we're really looking at is a what-if rendition of Tony Soprano ten years after onion rings at Holsten's, ten years into ever costlier payoffs for his wife's complicity, skull-fucked into a dead-soul stupor by the nightmare of watching his useless children morph into the people he always feared they'd be. (Mickey's got all the Tony mannerisms, the "whattya gonna do.") This Mickey's all torn up over women — he can make a young Jewish hooker with a great ass sound like the saddest thing in the world — and he bleeds his depression all over Jackie with a blow-by-blow of his wife threatening him with divorce, and his acceptance of it, as he's sucking down every drink in sight. Jackie's staring at him, wondering what the hell he's going to do with this morose, angry bastard, and it hits him right then and there: Mickey is him in twenty years, a hollowed-out prisoner of his own lonesome-drifter ethos, unable to sustain a life beyond the gun. It's the only kind of final chapter ever written for guys like him — no "happy," just an ending. (Jackie concedes his beer to his hard-drinking future self — he'll need it by then.) That realization spurs the only small mercy we see from Jackie — clemency wrapped in hard-bitten practicality — and it's part and parcel of a character who'd balked earlier at the notion of dishing out a prolonged thrashing to a man who's already marked for death. (Shades of American mealy-mouthing about torture, I presume.)

That's not to suggest that Pitt imbues Jackie with anything so damnably Hollywood as a "heart of gold." Jackie plies his trade with an unhesitating, face-to-face efficiency that delivers on the promise of his intro, set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," and utterly curdles the memory of his I-kill-'em-from-a-distance self-flattery. Nothing creases the brow of our slicked-back man in black — not the whimpering of a shotgunned man coughing and moaning through his final seconds of life as Jackie steps out of the darkness to put the cherry on his handiwork, not the casual necessity of eliminating an only witness with a bit of cranial reconstruction at point-blank range. Initially, I wrote off the slo-mo sequence of a Jackie hit set to Ketty Lester's "Love Letters" as pointlessly over-stylized, its bullets-as-love-letters conceit lifted wholesale — and rather cutely — from David Lynch's Blue Velvet. But there's a dazzling near-beauty to the way that the hit is presented — to the way that Jackie eases forward into the rain like a conjured spirit, gun-first; to the way that each detail of the hit is offered up for our fetishistic dissection. It's in the way that time distends itself to lovingly caress the clockwork mechanics of that steely piece of modern manhood — the release of the hammer, the kickback, all in trance-inducing extreme close-up with a magnified, Lynchian sound-effects rendering. It's in the perfect hole that a bullet makes in a pebbled mosaic of shattering glass, in the raindrops plinking off of spent shell casings like the kiss of a pebble skipping across a slumbering lake. It's in Jackie's target — frozen in a surreal stop-motion tableau of helplessness, hand impotently raised to stop the unstoppable. The whole sequence spins off into a kind of fever-dream hypnosis forged by a filmmaker in mad adolescent love with the magician's tricks at his disposal — it’s like a short-film treatise on the destructibility of human flesh fused with crash test dummy footage shot by David Fincher. It becomes its own grace note for Jackie, a paean to pure professionalism that morphs into a dreamy eroticism — the only real passion a cinder-hearted prick like Jackie can feel.

I suspect that this film's reputation may grow in the years to come, even if what it looks like at the moment is a minor work in the Dominik filmography — say, a stopgap E.P. after the sprawling, talent-defining double album that was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik's channeling the Gritty '70s with a Nixon-era they're-all-scumbags cynicism unfashionable in today's Democrat-besotted Hollywood and he filters it through the steely, desaturated colors and depersonalized urban anywheresville of David Fincher's Fight Club. It's a modern-day answer to Shampoo, really — a political allegory, set on the eve of a divisive American president's rise to power, that contrasts the grubby, self-centered goings-on of an American society in crisis with the backdrop of lofty rhetoric and empty promises made by the politicians who set the moral tone for all of us. To the callow bed-hoppers of 1968 Beverly Hills in the former, it was Tricky Dick Nixon — the evil spirit conjured forth by the me-firstness and personal corruption of the Southern California that gave him his initial prominence in politics. In Dominik's vision, it's the malfeasance and woeful mismanagement of an American government gone completely, bloodlessly corporate. Either way, it's a pointed finger at the people in the audience: "you — we — put this asshole in charge." Little wonder, then, that such a hard swig of rotgut was so utterly bypassed in our wine cooler era of "hope and change."

Dominik uses Pitt here the way he used his Jesse James: as his enigmatic Grim Reaper figure — the eerily unruffled, calmly fatalistic Zen center around which everyone else's panicked flailing and deer-in-the-crosshairs confusion revolves. Jackie's the graying ghost of an America That Was, evil flipside to a whole generation of unwavering, principled men who dedicated their lives to a craft. That craft, that job, was the sum total of who these men were, and they simply got down to business with no dawdling and little fanfare, with no expectation of a thank-you beyond full payment for services rendered. And what thanks does our Jackie get, this last of a dying breed, this true professional in our castrated modern era of loose-lipped amateurs and outsourced labor? He's saddled with double-talking bosses whose only concern is cutting corners. He's stuck picking up the slack for guys who just can't cut it. He's reduced to bitching with his colleague in a deserted airport bar like some middle-aged paper-shuffler who's in town for a conference about how to maximize productivity for the coming fiscal quarter, for God's sake. America eats its young, and leaves the bones for its working men to pick.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


StukaPilot said...

First review I've read in some time...that actually made me want to see the movie. Even if it means converting some of my hard-earned cash into Jewbux.

Dusty McGowan said...

Has it really been since March for your last entry? Anyway, I'm giving you a blogging award. Check it out, participate if you would like, and write some more soon:

Creative Commons License
Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .