MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Killing Them Softly

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Three Stars)
U.S. Andrew Dominik, 2012

In Andrew Dominik‘s Killing Me Softly, a crime movie without alibis, people die suddenly and meanly, very meanly — sometimes with their blood and brains splattering like a Sam Peckinpah death ballet across the dark frames, sometimes after being kicked and beaten almost senseless, sometimes fast and straight up, with a shot in the head. We’re in Hell, U.S.A. It’s an ugly world, sometimes a funny one and a brutal one, even when Ketty Lester’s heart-tearing rendition of Victor Young‘s “Love Letters“—with Floyd Cramer on piano—is on the soundtrack. And it’s a bent, greedy world revolving around money and power, with a lot of the mayhem coming from a cool deadly guy named Cogan.

Cogan is the cynical hit man played in the movie by Brad Pitt. He was also the main character in the novel “Cogan’s Trade,” by George V. Higgins, the classic 1974 crime novel from which New Zealand-born writer-director Dominik drew the scenario for Killing Them Softly—as bleak and rough a modern neo-noir as I’ve seen recently. Pitt plays him as a deadpan-sexy, no-nonsense sometimes acid-tongued killer who insists ”very few guys know me.” (Damn straight; not healthy.) He has been hired to kill two dumb low-life crooks who made the mistake of knocking over a mob-run poker game. The hapless pair: a gabby driver named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and an out-of-control Aussie junkie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn),

 

Other guys will have to get whacked too, including Frankie and Russell’s boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) who runs a legit dry-cleaning business, and who made the mistake of hiring these two irresponsible jerk-offs to pull the robbery. And there‘s also the guy who runs the poker games, Markie Trattman (Goodfella Ray Liotta), who made the mistake of robbing his own mob-run game one other time in the past, which means, for the sake of public relations, Markie has to get iced too.

You need a painstaking workman to handle multiple stuff like this. So the mob, through their dourly efficient attorney Driver (Richard Jenkins), engages the classy operator Jackie Cogan, who farms out one of the jobs to the once-first class killer, his friend Mickey (James Gandolfino). Mickey though, has unfortunately lost it. He’s turned maudlin drunk and hooker-happy and he has to be he replaced. Cogan is up to that too (“I like to kill them softly, from a distance,” he says, explaining his modus operandi.).

All of this, in Higgins’ novel, took place in the Boston criminal underworld, which Higgins, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts (and a prosecutor, a defense lawyer, a newspaper columnist and a teacher) knew very well. While investigating local criminals and sending some of them to stir, Higgins listened to them—soaked up their clipped, brutal lingo—and that’s where we get this movie‘s many terse zingers and brass-knuckle gems.

For financial reasons (apparently), Killing Them Softly, the movie has been transplanted to New Orleans and the year changed reset from 1974 to 2008 in the post-Hurricane-Katrina, post-financial crash period of U. S. history. (We see President George W. Bush and presidential candidate Barack Obama on CNN in the local bars, instead of sports, which seems strange.) The city we’re in, dark and barren and a real City of Night, seems more generic, an Everycity. The streets are in New Orleans, but the people and their talk, the verbal rhythms and the nasty slang, still remind you of Boston. Now, you ask me, I think they should have spent the extra money and shot the whole think in Boston, or even recreated Boston on a sound stage. But then, I‘ve never been good with money. Neither was George W. Bush.

It’s not a bad movie though. Pretty damn good, you ask me. George V. Higgins was one terrific S. O. B. of a writer. And this is one of his top books. Elmore Leonard no less called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,“ Higgins’ first novel—or his fifteenth, if you count the fourteen he says he wrote earlier and threw away—the best crime novel ever written. (You’ll recall that Peter Yates made Friends of Eddie Coyle into a hell of a 1973 movie, with Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle,) Higgins is famous for his realistic stories and characters, his flawless Boston atmosphere, his terse understated style—and his beyond-Hemingway dialogue, which almost everyone thinks is great. (Me too.)

“Cogan’s Trade” is first-class material. And Dominik can be an ace hard-boiled, high-style director. (“Hard-boiled, high style”: That’s the essence of noir.) I liked his last movie, the grin, artful 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also starred Pitt, as Jesse James, Casey Affleck as Ford, and had the same gray, violent, cheerless, murderous feel as this movie. So it didn’t bother me that Dominik’s show has a lot of talk and relatively little action, that it has a sense of character and that it didn’t have a shootout every 20 minutes. Who needs all that shit anyway? I hear the original cut was two and a half hours, more like Jesse James, and I bet the long cut was better and I bet that it even plays faster. Sometimes you don’t make a long movie go quicker by cutting it. You just screw up the connections. Remember Once Upon a Time in America? I rest my case.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is good neo-noir stuff. Hard-boiled; high style. But the script carries the movie, and the acting. Gandolfino is great. Jenkins: nobody does a pill like this guy. Liotta: give him more lines. And, as for Pitt: the guy can act definitely and he‘s a movie star, definitely, and wait until you hear him say the line about America isn‘t a country, it‘s a business, now pay me (May not even have been a Higgins line, but is expresses the what-the-fuck, the gestalt. It sounds right, smells right.) Nobody says that line better, not even that showboat Clooney. Well, Mitchum would have said it better, but he had a deeper voice, and he was better at accents, you know. So who cares, there’s not more shooting? There’s enough. You know?

 

Leave a Reply

Wilmington

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas