Robert Bush 8:35 a.m., May 25
New feature: Afterimage
A place to hash things out after you've seen the film.
Happy 2013, everybody. Let's get things started, shall we? First up: Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly - which may be a poor choice, since almost nobody saw it. But here at The Big Screen, we've always valued passion over popularity, and my co-blogger Mr. Marks is nothing if not passionate about Killing Them Softly. He rated it number seven on his list of top films of 2012. I disagreed. So:
Scott, let's start off with something I think we might agree on: the special effects. Specifically, the sound effects employed during the scene where Ray Liotta is savagely beaten by a couple of thugs, and the visual effects employed when Liotta is later shot by Brad Pitt. In both cases, they're heavy-handed and out of place in a film that devotes so much energy to depicting the crummy, unspecial reality of criminal life. Everything about the film is so awfully real - remember that early shot of Ben Mendelsohn walking the stolen dog through the rotten suburban neighborhood? That was amazing. And then suddenly, Ray Liotta getting punched in the face sounds like a bag of intestines stuffed with marbles being thrown under a tank tread. It just doesn't fit.
Ditto the super-slo-mo progression of bullet after bullet from Pitt's gun through Liotta's face, followed by the smashing arrival of a truck as it crushes Liotta's car. It was absolutely "look what I can do" directing, and it was distracting and dumb. Frankly, both scenes felt heavily padded by the effects work. I really did wonder if Dominik threw them in because he didn't have faith that his material would be good enough to keep the audience's interest. Or enough faith the audience to stay with his story.
Which brings me to the political point. In your entry on the Best of 2012 list, you wrote, "Many, including my partner, were quick to dismiss the film: 'In order to hammer home its point about American morality with regard to money as manifested on the macro level by the 2008 financial crisis and on the micro level by the machinations of some truly unpleasant urban lowlifes, Killing Them Softly asks the audience to believe that the patrons of an illegal high-stakes card game would ever select, by way of background ambiance, a televised speech from President Bush. Also, that a couple of thugs sent to beat a man half to death would warm up for the occasion by listening to a speech on Federal intervention in the marketplace.' The end justified the means: director Andrew Dominik's lead-footed approach to politics payed off for me with his final summation that it's corporations, not political parties, running the country. Even if you have no use for the film's message there's a top-drawer heist sequence and enough creatively foul-mouthed goons to make it a highly entertaining modern day noir."
I have plenty of use for the film's message, even if I think that Dominik uses Brad Pitt like a megaphone and not a character during that final speech about the corporations. (Did we really need to hear about Thomas Jefferson schtupping his slave like it was some kind of profound revelation? And does that actually prove that what he wrote was bullshit?) When the crooks were laying out the structure of the underworld economy - one card game gets hit by a selfish jerk out to make a quick buck, the other card games slow down because there's a lack of confidence, the money stops moving, everything goes to hell - I thought we might have a genius film on our hands: a sharp critique of America's economic situation as manifested by the economic situation of America's crooks. Because it's crooks all the way to the top. You could even have tied it to the behavior of Wall Street and Washington at the opening, the ending, and maybe once along the way to keep things clear. (The opening sequence, with the static-y hiccuping version of then-Senator Obama's speech on opportunity, was fantastic.) As you say, "The economy, being what it is, forces even seasoned hit men to take a pay cut. How can you not love this premise?"
But as you also say, it's not just about the story, it's about the storytelling. And Dominik does a hash job of it by ramming the underworld-overworld parallels down our throats at every turn, in ways that aren't even close to believable. That's why I mentioned the use of a Bush speech as background during an illegal card game. It betrays a lack of faith on Dominik's part in either his story or his audience. Whichever it is, it makes for bad moviemaking. I wanted to like this film. This film wouldn't let me like it.
Moving on to character quibbles, specifically, James Gandolfini as a washed-up hit man. Like it or not, Gandolfini's career thus far has been defined by his role as the modern mob boss Tony Soprano on the landmark HBO series The Sopranos. Which series famously opened with Tony discussing his troubles - specifically, panic attacks - with a psychiatrist. Part of The Sopranos' brilliance was the way it kept reminding you of both Tony's humanity and his monstrosity. Every time you were so sickened by his actions that you were ready to stop watching - this piece of garbage doesn't deserve to the be the protagonist of something I'm paying attention to - something would happen that made him resonate, that made you identify with him despite yourself.
So yeah, I know it's wrong to judge an actor's part in a given film by his parts in other films - except when it's not. That's part of being a star. Film nut David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes that Jimmy Stewart's "body of mature films, made during the 1950s for Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, while generally presenting him as a troubled, querulous, or lonely personality, clearly play on the immense reputation for charm that his early films had won. Thus Stewart is one of the most intriguing examples of a star cast increasingly against his accepted character." Part of the reason Vertigo is so powerful is that it stars the man who cried, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!"
Which brings us to my first problem with Gandolfini's washed-up hitman in Killing Them Softly. All throughout his two endless litanies about his personal life, I kept thinking, "All this might be compelling if I had any reason at all to care about this character." But the film had given me no reason to care - he was just a guy brought in to do a hit job. If you wanted to show me that his personal life had gotten so complicated that it was affecting his professional responsibilities - well, you could have done that in one shot, and a much shorter shot at that. What we wind up with is wildly self-indulgent, and not in the kinda fascinating Tarantino way. (And didn't Death Proof teach us that even Tarantino was capable of going overboard in this department?)
On top of that, the two litanies don't even fit together. In the first, the guy is tied up in knots because it looks like he might wind up in jail again, and this time, he's not sure his wife is gonna be there when he gets out. Plus, he's further from home than he's supposed to be, so if he gets spotted, he's in trouble. He comes across as an old, fat man at the end of his career, watching everything fall apart and crying into his cocktails.
The next time we see him, he looks like an old, fat man who has somehow found the strength to go on a three-day bender that includes sessions with every whore in New Orleans, and all he wants to talk about are the joys of the flesh. He is utterly transformed in both character and energy - except he still doesn't have the stomach to do the job he was hired to do.
On top of that, he winds up being utterly inconsequential to the story. Gandolfini can't do the job, so Brad Pitt's hitman winds up having to kill both guys, including the one he didn't want to kill. But there are no consequences - it's not like anything bad happens to Pitt because he broke his code of killing folks softly. The only point of Gandolfini's character coming into the story is to set up the disagreement over fees between Pitt and the money man at the end. And we spent waaaay too long listening to Gandolfini whine for that kind of minor payoff.
On top of that, what might have been a tense, even dramatically interesting subplot - how do we get rid of this drunken but still dangerous bum we brought in by mistake? - gets resolved offscreen with just one line of dialogue from Pitt about setting him up to get in a fight with a hooker in a hotel that doesn't take kindly to folks getting in fights with hookers. We don't even get to see that scene. Which would have provided a lot more dramatic interest - to say nothing of actual action - than everything else we got out of Gandolfini.
Whoof. I'm running long, so I'll stop there. But first, a concession: yes, the goons are great, and yes, the heist sequence is top-drawer. Second, an objection: you say that many were quick to dismiss Killing Them Softly. But it's pulling a solid, certified-fresh 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, and and has a bunch of glowing reviews on Metacritic. I'll grant that it inspired a strong response, but you're not alone in loving this one. The guy from Entertainment Weekly was over the moon.