Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Theaters: KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik.  Cast: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Slaine. (R, 97 mins)

I wasn't able to see KILLING THEM SOFTLY until nearly a week after it opened to critical acclaim and audience rage, so it's impossible to discuss the film without conducting a post-mortem of it.  Writer/director Andrew Dominik's follow-up to his critically-lauded but studio-abandoned THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD bowed to utterly toxic audience reaction during its opening weekend and functions as one of the year's more alarming examples of a massive critic/audience disconnect.  It's not uncommon or unexpected for an ad campaign to intentionally misdirect an audience in order to hide a plot twist, but there's plenty of fairly recent examples of studios very deceptively and intentionally selling an arthouse-type film as something it isn't because they know it's not mainstream or multiplex-friendly. Very often, films like this get tiny theatrical releases in one or two cities before being dumped on DVD, but sometimes, there's maybe a big name involved and it can have a huge opening weekend before the negative buzz circulates.  20th Century Fox opening Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake of SOLARIS nationwide on Thanksgiving weekend to rope in the George Clooney/OCEAN'S ELEVEN crowd stands as a particularly egregiously ballsy example.  Lionsgate sold William Friedkin's BUG as a horror film, sucking people in with "From the director of THE EXORCIST." Not a lie, but not really preparing audiences for an adaptation of a stage play where Ashley Judd freaks out in a motel room for two hours.  Clooney had this happen again with 2010's THE AMERICAN, which Focus opened nationwide and sold as an action-packed suspense thriller when in fact it's an austere, methodical, glacially slow-paced character study filled with long stretches of silence.  I saw THE AMERICAN with an audience where the impatience and discontent grew from dramatic sighs midway through to a palpable fury by the end, with one woman shouting "Hang the director!" as the closing credits rolled.  Through no fault of the films themselves, there's certainly an argument to be made for their marketing being examples of blatant audience contempt.  It's not like the days of old when the inaccurate depiction of horror and exploitation films was largely a standard practice.  No, the studios behind SOLARIS and THE AMERICAN cynically took advantage of Clooney's celebrity to sell small, artsy, limited-appeal films to an unsuspecting commercial audience, when they shouldn't have been opening wide in the first place (it's worth noting that Clooney produced THE AMERICAN but refused to do any publicity for it--was he protesting the marketing?).  Audiences seemed to be a lot more open to these kinds of challenging films in decades past, but are moviegoers dumber today?  Yeah, probably, though it might not be that simple.  They're certainly less tolerant when faced with a film that goes against their expectations.  I can't imagine a sign at a movie theater entrance in 1975 like the hand-written one I was confronted with when I went to see PUNCH DRUNK LOVE in 2002 ("PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is not a typical Adam Sandler comedy--refunds will not be given due to the content of the film").  But film snobs and cineastes are just as knee-jerk reactionary and misguided when they say things like "Sorry if this movie made you think!" or "Just go see a Michael Bay movie instead."  It's hard to disagree with someone who's peeved about dropping $50 on tickets and concessions for themselves and their significant other and the George Clooney action thriller they were sold turns out to be a somber Jean-Pierre Melville homage.  Other than extreme levels of multiplex audience scorn, what do films like SOLARIS, BUG, and THE AMERICAN have in common?  They're good once one considers them without the mainstream expectations.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY didn't even get a chance to rake in some box office before the negative word-of-mouth spread like a virus.  Having said that, and after seeing it, if one doesn't follow movie news and decides to see it based solely on the marketing, I don't find the trailer for KILLING THEM SOFTLY to be all that deceptive, though I'll concede it's more of an arthouse film that probably shouldn't have opened wide "in theaters everywhere." The plot is essentially what's laid out in the trailer.  What audiences seemed to revolt against was the fact that it's largely character-driven and very dialogue-heavy.   If a trailer has blatantly lied to a prospective audience, that audience is justified in their displeasure, but the intense mainstream hatred for KILLING THEM SOFTLY?  That's on the audience.  The trailer didn't sell something that wasn't there.  People saw Brad Pitt and guns, and jumped to their own conclusions.  Know what you're going to see.  Know that it's from the guy who made THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.  Know that it's based on a 1970s novel by a guy who specialized in chronicling the blue-collar, working-stiff aspect of the mob.  This isn't Brad Pitt's SCARFACE.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade.  Higgins also wrote the 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was turned into a 1973 box-office flop with Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle that's now rightfully considered one of the great mob movies.  Both books and their subsequent film adaptations focus on the seedy, unglamourous, average Joe, nickel-and-dime side of gangster life.  Dominik updates Higgins' work to include a politically-charged undercurrent of the 2008 election, with frequent TV shots and talk radio clips of a campaigning Barack Obama and soon-to-be-outgoing President George W. Bush discussing the Wall Street bailout.  Dominik uses these elements and a change in setting from Boston to New Orleans to illustrate that even the mob is susceptible to economic and recession woes, but it's a point that he belabors a bit too heavy-handedly as the film proceeds, though it does wrap up with a declaration by Pitt's character that's maybe my favorite movie line of 2012. 

The film begins with low-level New Orleans mobster Johnny "The Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola, best known as Johnny Sack on THE SOPRANOS) hatching a plan from the dingy office of his dry-cleaning business:  he's persuaded dim, skeezy flunky Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his Australian junkie buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to knock over an illegal card game run by numbers guy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).  Frankie balks because he knows such an act would put a hit out on them, but Trattman infamously staged a robbery of one of his own card games in the past and was granted a pass for it.  If it happens a second time, the bosses would naturally assume he stupidly tried it again and wouldn't be as forgiving.  Frankie and Russell pull off the job, and of course, Markie looks guilty until Russell starts bragging about it and it gets back to mob enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard).  Dillon dispatches hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to meet with a mysterious go-between known as The Driver (Richard Jenkins) to work out a plan to whack Frankie, Russell, The Squirrel, and, at Jackie's insistence, Markie, now deemed a business liability even though he wasn't part of the second heist.  Jackie insists on a second man to assist, so New York Mickey (James Gandolfini) is brought in.  Mickey, once a feared and respected figure, is depressed over his marital troubles and now an alcoholic, sex-addicted shell of what he once was, even agreeing to a lower fee because times are tough and he needs the money.

From the start, Dominik lets the story unfold naturally and takes his time establishing the characters.  Pitt doesn't even appear until nearly 30 minutes in.  Outstanding performances all around, right down to the smaller roles, though Shepard's really feels cut down, as Dillon is mentioned frequently but actually on screen for less than a minute (and incidentally, Higgins' novels took place in the same universe, and not having read them, I'm assuming that Shepard's Dillon and Peter Boyle's Dillon in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE were likely the same character in the books).  Gandolfini only has two or three scenes, but they're long scenes and he's able to make a vivid impression of what at times seems like Tony Soprano if he hit rock bottom.  Liotta, who busts out his signature laugh at one point, manages to evoke genuine sympathy when the hapless Markie is subjected to one of cinema's most brutal, stomach-turning beatings.  These characters don't talk or behave like Tarantino-esque pop-culture gangsters, but the real, gritty deal.  The film features some of the harshest and most spectacularly foul language you'll hear in a movie this year, even when they aren't dropping a near-record number of F-bombs (at one point, Mickey berates a tip-demanding hooker with "You want a tip?  Put the condom on with your mouth and stop acting like your anus is a national monument").  Other than the frequent use of Obama and Bush soundbites, KILLING THEM SOFTLY looks and feels like it could've been made in 1977.  From the fashions to the cars to their attitudes, these aging wiseguys have never moved beyond their glory days, and the realization seems to be hitting them during the hard times of the recession with the increased corporatization, red tape, penny-pinching, and micro-managing inherent in their world.  As evidenced by his final, seething monologue, Jackie is the only one who seems to get it. 

Like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (which is in my top five favorite films of the last decade), KILLING THEM SOFTLY is not a commercial endeavor, and it will likely be some time before it can be appreciated and valued away from the standards and expectations of a mainstream multiplex movie audience.  It's a terrific film, smartly written, richly detailed, and not at all deserving of the hatred being leveled at it by average moviegoers.  Its day will come and maybe for those who disliked it so intensely, something will draw them back to give it a second chance and without the baggage of its box office failure and the "F" grade from the inane Cinemascore,  perhaps then it will click.  Until then, let the devoted cult following begin.

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