What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY released on Blu/DVD on March 26th. Anchor Bay has some kind of long term distribution agreement with The Weinstein Company, so both EASY MONEY and KILLING THEM SOFTLY are being released as a partnership between these two companies.
The chatter about this film that I caught via my various news feeds was almost uniform disappointment and outright dislike of Director Andrew Dominik’s follow up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Friends, podcasts, and my Twitter feed just seemed to be generally bummed out by KILLING THEM SOFTLY’s supposed drop off in quality from JESSE JAMES. So I went into the film cautiously, expectations firmly adjusted, and ended up highly enjoying this uniquely told crime film.
Talky, small-scaled, and perhaps too heavily reliant upon the convention of characters listening to thematically relevant content on their TVs and car radios? Sure. But I found the talk-heavy elements to be witty, not to mention solid opportunities for great performers to dig in and tear up the scenary. And, like EASY MONEY, I liked the sort of small-scale, hyper focus on lowly, hard on their luck gangsters whose dealings really don’t have a lot of significance to anyone other than themselves. I can’t really excuse the repeated over-use of the sound bites and news clips that constantly remind viewers that the film is set during the Obama/McCain election, and that slather our ears with talk of recession. But to be honest, that lone element of the film was just about the only thing that really bothered me about it!
The screenplay is structured very interestingly, and could almost be a stage drama. (It was adapted by Dominik from the novel COGAN’S TRADE by George V. Higgins.) It allows this extremely minor card game heist to be set up and pulled off before even introducing viewers to the man who is ostensibly the main character, Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan.
Cogan is some kind of “fixer” or hit man, brought in by the mob to track down the small time goons who knocked over their protected card game. Then a whole series of various dialog sequences occur which lead to the methodical conclusion. Lots of talking, lots of waxing poetic, and it all worked for me. What this type of structure tells me is that KILLING THEM SOFTLY isn’t really a star vehicle for Pitt at all, but rather a rock-solid ensemble piece that Pitt produced and utilized his leading man status to get made. Scoot McNairy is probably the film’s actual lead, or at least shares that billing with Pitt.McNairy plays the talkative, plucky, and most-likely dim-witted Frankie. Frankie is a likeably guy, but he thinks he is smart, and that is his biggest problem.
He and Cogan are on an unstoppable collision course and the film’s third act really crackles with tension between them. Actually, the first scene in which they share screen time was organized in real life so that it was the first time McNairy and Pitt ever met. The filmmakers worked it out so that their first ominous encounter would be amplified by the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the two men for each other. It is a great scene, and just about the only thing that the single behind the scenes bonus feature on the disc really taught me about the film.
Honestly the entire cast is refreshing and spot-on. James Gandolfini plays a washed up hit man brought in by Cogan to help him take care of the situation. But his character ends up being useless, entirely too far gone to be of help to anybody. Ray Liotta plays the mid-level guy in charge of the ill-fated card game who is instantly a suspect because it is widely known that he once knocked over HIS OWN card game! Richard Jenkins shows up as the liason between Cogan and the mafia bosses. The interactions between Cogan and this middle man are punchy and often hilarious. Jenkins never disappoints. Another name I’m becoming accustomed to hearing is Ben Mendelsohn. Here he plays a drugged out Australian with grime under his finger nails and loose lips.
He is excellent, and also put in recent quality turns in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and the upcoming THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Keep an eye on this guy. The entire ensemble is remarkable and while many of their scenes and conversations don’t amount to a whole lot… that is kind of the idea. There is a futility to all the proceedings here that feels intentional, bleak, and whip smart.
What surprised me most about KILLING THEM SOFTLY was just how funny and sly the whole affair is. Everything is metaphor, a harsh statement on the futility of America today, and the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in. Setting the film during the early days of the recent economic depression was perhaps an obvious decision, but a no less good decision. Dominik uses this petty and disorganized small-time mafia story to indict the entire capitalist system. The humor comes simply by seeing gangsters impacted by the bad economy just like the rest of us were/are. But the bite comes with the implications that America may have passed its glory days and may never get them back. The end goal for any single character in the film is: Pay me. And in turn Dominik seems to be implying that America’s own goals aren’t far from that. It is a pretty pessimistic endeavor.
I can see how some viewers would have trouble really LIKING anybody in this movie, since it is filled with greedy, selfish, small-time losers. Pitt’s Cogan is kind of the calm, cool, collected one who may be the Grim Reaper personified; and sporting a ridiculous pompadour. But even Cogan, while smarter than the rest, has no moral high ground to stand on and you would ultimately never want to be this guy’s friend. But the clever screenplay, wonderful ensemble cast, and occasionally breathtaking cinematography by Greig Fraser all culminate in a small but devilish crime film that I believe I’ll revisit fairly often over the years.
The disc itself looks great and does justice to Dominik and Fraser’s work in front of the camera. There is a shooting death and a fireworks scene that you’ll know when you see. And they look incredible. Sure, there are a lot of scenes of sitting and talking, but even then there is a style infused, or a wonderful actor filling the screen and injecting magic. But all you get other than a pretty awesome little gangster film are some deleted scenes and an all-too-short behind the scenes featurette. I’d have loved a Dominik/Pitt commentary here, but that is not to be for this particular release.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis