(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 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.
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.