Friday, May 25, 2012

Cannes '12 Review: "Killing Them Softly" [Competition]

Killing Them Softly, the next film from Andrew Dominik (2007's masterful The Assassination of Jesse James...) may lack the poetic beauty of its director's previous film, but that doesn't stop it from being a rollicking good film in its own right. An adaptation of the novel "Cogan's Trade" by George Higgins (the film initially shared the same title), Dominik's film may not be a subtle piece like his last film, yet what emerges is undoubtedly the work of a compelling filmmaker. Though perhaps just shy of the greatness required to, say, win the Palme D'Or, Killing Them Softly boasts strong performances and excellent technical aspects that make it one of the stand outs of the festival, as well as the year (the Weinstein Company will release it theatrically in the fall).

Moving the story to New Orleans, Dominik's film first introduces us to a couple of low-level thugs (Scoot McNairy and Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn) who rob a card game held by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As it turns out, Markie once robbed his own card game, and then admitted it (albeit late enough so no one got too upset). Still, if he were to pull the same stunt again, things wouldn't go over so well. So when McNairy and Mendelsohn's thugs go in to rob the game, naturally, things start going south for poor Markie. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), backed up by Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" to spectacularly satiric effect. Hired by the unseen upper echelon mob members, it's Cogan's job to sort things out, and punish those who deserve punishment. In hindsight, the plot isn't anything special on paper. That's where the execution comes into play.

Set against the false hope(s) of the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly is one cynical bastard of a film, and it's all the more enjoyable because of this. Dominik never attempts the subtle route in his message - that America is a business - yet the film doesn't feel weakened because of this (though I'm sure many will disagree). Filled with technical flourishes (lateral camera moves, tracking shots, depth of field manipulation, etc...), Dominik takes an ugly looking world of decay and grime and turns it into something oddly beautiful. Sometimes it becomes too much, such as a scene where the camera tries to evoke the feeling of Mendelsohn's high-as-a-kite character, but ultimately his stylized tendencies are a resounding success. The tracking shots in particular pay off nicely, building a nice sense of momentum and tension. Watching the camera follow McNairy and Mendelsohn into the critical heist is made more cinematic and suspenseful by virtue of the unbroken shot(s) following them towards their target. Another crucial moment, a mob hit, comes stunningly to life thanks to the use of gorgeously gritty slow motion. 

The performances aren't half bad either, by which I mean there's some damn good acting in the film, even if some is a little one note. Pitt, who shows up surprisingly late in the game, starts off merely decently, but evolves into one hell of a presence. His Cogan is a man who does his job well, but takes no relish in it, preferring to kill his targets "softly," (take them out from a distance) so there's no room for emotion to get in the way. It's not on the same level as Pitt's collaboration with Dominik in Jesse James, which saw the actor reach new heights of dark magnetism, but the film does show the two to be a strong actor-director match. It's somewhere between the richness of their previous collaboration and one of Pitt's better "star" turns, like last year's Moneyball, a mix of persona and actual character detailing that is never truly remarkable yet impressive nonetheless. 

The supporting players are dynamite as well. James Gandolfini is truly remarkable as a major hitman Cogan calls in, only to discover that he's past his prime and wasting his life on hookers and booze. Though the interactions between the two go on just a hair too long, there's no denying that Gandolfini owns the scenes, creating a cynically tragic figure, a man left wallowing in decline in a position of greed and violence. McNairy and Mendelsohn are also quite fun to watch as the idiot thugs who try and get away with the heist that sets everything off. Richard Jenkins, in the most normal role of the bunch, remains compelling in his interactions with Cogan as the mob's coordinator. 

Yet despite its upfront nature, Killing Them Softly has a little more on its mind, and I suspect this is where it will prove divisive. Dominik is clearly trying to say something about a part of America left behind before the promises of the 2008 election, as well as how America is becoming more and more of a business. While I wouldn't question the opinions of those who found Dominik's approach to be too much, I have to concede that I enjoyed the hell out it. It's not subtle, nor does it pretend to be. It's in your face, and extremely satisfying because of it, culminating a pitch-perfect bit of black comedy that is also Pitt's best scene. Technically stunning, well acted, and packing a (completely in-your-face) message, Killing Them Softly may lack the poetry of Dominik's last film, but that doesn't stop it from being a damn good one. 

Grade: B+/A-

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