I wasn’t nearly as wild as a lot of critics about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — I thought it was too long, too arty and slow, too in love with its moods and images. Yet it was clear that the director, the New Zealand-born Australian Andrew Dominik, was very gifted. Whenever Brad Pitt appeared as Jesse James, the screen vibrated with menace, even though Pitt seemed to be doing almost nothing. As good as he had been before (in, say, Fight Club), I thought that the Jesse James performance was the place where Pitt took the full leap to who he is today — a top-of-his-game Hollywood actor who infuses star aura with complexity. In Killing Them Softly, Dominik’s first feature since The Assassination of Jesse James, Pitt once again plays a quietly powerful sociopath, and once again the screen vibrates. The thing about Pitt’s charismatic badasses — and this is what a lot of haters still miss about him as an actor — is that although they radiate a certain brawny physical fearlessness, they draw their strength from Pitt’s intelligence, his quicksilver-cool line readings and aura of awareness.
In Killing Them Softly, he plays Jackie Cogan, a Mob enforcer who’s called in to clean up the mess that follows an underworld card-game robbery committed by two real bottom feeders: Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who’s just desperate and manic enough to know that he’s in over his head, and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, from Animal Kingdom), a sweaty, disheveled British junkie who can’t see past his next fix. The two look like they should be easy enough to deal with, but first Jackie has to figure out whether Trattman (Ray Liotta), who runs the poker night, masterminded the heist of his own game (he had done that once before). Then he’s got to smoke out anyone else involved.
On paper, there’s not much to the plot, which is taken from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Game by Boston crime writer George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle). But that’s because Dominik wants the encounters to stand out from the story. He wants the drama to be in how these petty lowlifes interact with each other — the chiseling, ball-busting, back-and-forth scuzziness, the comedy of casually obscene aggression that’s always dancing on the edge of violence. This, of course, is Scorsese Land, Tarantino Land, and also David Chase Land, and because those three have, in different ways, mined this kind of criminal material so brilliantly, you’ve now got to be damn good to enter the authentically bloody and intense movie-underworld arena and really play that game.
Dominik is up to the challenge. Killing Them Softly is mostly a loosely frazzled series of dialogues, held in bars, cars, and apartment lairs, and a lot of them are mesmerizing. Dominik plugs us into the moment, so that we’re hanging on every word to figure out who’s stupid but maybe street smart, and who’s under whose thumb. The fact that so little is really at stake is a part of the tasty gutter flavor. So is the relentlessness of the violence (Ray Liotta gets the holy living crap beat out of him in a scene that, for me, was more intense, and more true, than anything in Drive). Killing Them Softly was shot, in a palette of vivid grunge, in what appears to be the most anonymous locations in every dirty armpit of Boston, and the characters, too, are walking armpits. They don’t rise to the level of being goodfellas — they’re worsefellas.
One of the worst, and most captivating, is James Gandolfini as Mickey, an old hitman crony of Jackie’s who gets called up from Florida to do one of the jobs. Gandolfini trots out his familiar Tony Soprano inflections, yet this Mob lug has an even shorter fuse than Tony, and Gandolfini makes him a different animal, a drunk and a rabid bully who abuses harmless waiters and hookers yet weeps if his wife waves divorce papers at him. When he and Jackie are sitting around, chewing over their lives, revealing everything and nothing, the movie takes wing. It’s the poetry of men who have no poetry — who exist from one threat to the next.
Killing Them Softly is less successful when it tries to be a tale of capitalism’s decline. Dominik has set the film at the end of George W. Bush’s second term, when the economy was falling apart. He keeps looping in TV clips of Bush, and of Obama riding into the home stretch of the presidential campaign in full “hope and change” mode. The implication is that the entire system is rigged, and that the cutthroats we’re watching are acting out the greedy, rotten desperation of the whole society. But that’s an awfully grand — and trendy — indictment to balance on the backs of thieves and murderers who can barely see what’s in front of them. (The movie also says that the Mob behaves just like a corporation, a point that was made 40 years ago by The Godfather.) Killing Them Softly is a blistering, at times hypnotic minor movie that wraps itself in an importance it never earns. But there’s no doubt that it has made me an Andrew Dominik believer.
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Remember The Celebration? Thomas Vinterberg’s tale of a family birthday party gone wrong was one of the few Dogma 95 films to gain any traction, but I remember sitting through it and thinking that beneath the harsh light, naturalistic sound, and smartly manufactured air of shot-on-video chaos, what was actually happening in the movie was preposterous. In The Hunt, Vinterberg has abandoned the Dogma-isms — but, unfortuntely, the new movie rings just as false, and maybe even more so, since it deals with the deadly grave issue of a man falsely accused of child sexual abuse. He’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, the very good Danish actor who was James Bond’s liver-lipped enemy across the poker table in Casino Royale. In The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays a divorced and, from what we can see, very gentle and decent grade-school educator who is arbitrarily accused, by his best friend’s young daughter, of having done bad things to her. The accusation is false (the girl is confused, for several reasons, including the moment that her brother shows her hard-core pornography on the Internet), but the idea of the movie is that the lie sticks, then grows like a virus.
It sounds like the kind of thing that happened in America during the child-sex-abuse witch hunts of the ’80s. But in The Hunt, almost nothing we see is believable. Like the fact that the teacher who presides over the hearings, in a veritable one-woman crusade against Mikkelsen, breaks legal protocol (by, at one point, calling his ex-wife to report the accusation), with zero ramifications. Or the fact that no one ever stops to consider that the accuser, who changes her story several times, might actually be lying. Or that Mikkelsen, faced with a horrendous accusation that he is completely innocent of, barely even opens his mouth to defend himself (are Scandinavians that verbally reticent?). Or the fact that one of his neighbors expresses the community’s disgust by killing Mikkelsen’s dog (a case of cross-wired genre clichés, since no one would kill the pet of an accused child molester — that’s what thugs in thrillers do as warnings). Vinterberg wants to heighten the emotions of persecution — he’s trying for a minimalist version of The Crucible — but since he gets the details all wrong, the result is like a parable for no-nothings.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: