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American Independents, Hollywood

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.

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