by Paul Deines
Profiles in Batshittery is a monthly series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV. I choose one batshit classic per year, beginning in 2013 and moving back year by year.
This week, I’m discussing 2012’s Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn and James Gandolfini.
What it Promised …
Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of Cogan’s Trade by late-attorney-turned-late-novelist George V. Higgins. Higgins also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the gold standard for South Boston hood narratives. Without Higgins’ writing, there’d be no Denis Lehane, no Departed, no The Town; and a film adaptation of one of his works hadn’t been made in several decades. Director Andrew Dominik struck big with his first film, the violent, flippant Aussie biopic Chopper. He followed this up with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I found ponderous to the point of catatonia but many found stirring. And Killing Them Softly had the imprimatur of Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures has bankrolled such modern art-house classics as The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, and Her. Ellison also produced the forthcoming Foxcatcher.
Anyway, devotees love Higgins’ tale of a mob enforcer brought to town to clean up the wreckage of a poker game robbery for its hard-bitten dialogue and bleak worldview. The impression one got from trailers and advance press was that Dominik was creating an allegory for the 2008 financial collapse and leaning hard on the fatalism. I, for one, was psyched.
What it Delivered …
Not sure whether to go with heavy-handed or ham-fisted. Dominik made the dubious choice to move the action from New England to post-Katrina New Orleans. I understand he wanted a visual representation of an economically devastated aprés-Bush America, but all of his characters still speak like Southie ne’er-do-wells. No one has a local accent. It’s bizarre. It also doesn’t help that a movie set in a city that’s population is 66% black has precisely one minority character. She’s also the only woman, and she’s a prostitute.
So, all of that made no sense, and it was just the first example of the director choosing capital-I Ideas over a cogent story. Its characters are constantly discussing, for no discernable reason, the concepts of America, capitalism, society. Anyway, the film was released on the last day of November 2012, an orphan in the midst of awards-bait season. This ungainly, unpleasant exercise in social commentary might have done well as a mid-summer corrective, but compared to such audience-pleasing prestige pics as The Descendants and War Horse, it stood exactly no chance. This all added up to the lowest audience rating ever recorded by CineScore.
What Works and What Doesn’t…
Killing Them Softly works in fits and starts. It opens with one of the most arresting introductory sequences I’ve ever seen. The single chord, the floating garbage, the darkened portal, and the first words, spoken not by one of our characters, but by then-candidate Barack Obama.
Of course, we’re left mystified as to why either the Obama or McCain campaigns would waste money on billboards in uncontested red state Louisiana. We wonder, too, why a mob card-game would have a TV playing George W. Bush speaking about TARP legislation. Or why Brad Pitt’s gangster suddenly starts railing against Obama and Thomas Jefferson in the final scene.
In the midst of the overbearing, Dominik gives a master-class in how to foster anxiety and dread. Beginning with the introduction of the three co-conspirators, he makes clear there is no chance this heist will work out, from the dozen dogs Mendelsohn’s addict is walking around with to Vincent Curatola’s constant peevish outbursts. Then, we’re treated to a supremely tense hold-up. Even with our 43rd president droning on in the background about irresponsible financial actors, your attention is locked. Dominik employs tracking shots, slow motion, lingering close-ups, all in one masterful sequence. He also introduces a sort of Chekov’s-sawed-off-shotgun, the explosive potential of which keeps us on edge the whole robbery
Other moments, like a super-slo-mo drive-by shooting set to “Love Letters” might as well have been directed by Zak Snyder.
As the philosophical center of the film, Brad Pitt seems at sea. There’s a natural flippancy to his acting, which makes the easy charm of his Ocean’s Eleven performances or the quiet desperation of his Billy Beane so effective. As a world-weary distributor of justice, he’s less compelling. There are moments where his Cogan is straining to be intimidating; at other times he’s a peevish teenager.
Not helping Pitt is that he’s surrounded by such fantastic supporting performances. As the doomed shyster Markie, Ray Liotta brings a frozen Cheshire Cat grin that doesn’t match the rest of his haggard person. Watching him go down is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Ben Mendelsohn manages to capture the frazzled menace of a derelict with nothing to lose, and Scoot McNairy’s Frankie grounds the film with a frayed-nerve portrayal of a loser who knows that’s exactly what he is. And no once plays banal corruption like Richard Jenkins.
Also, right in the middle of the film – almost totally unconnected to the main narrative – James Gandolfini gives one of his finest performances. As Mickey, a hitman tumbling down the crevasse of alcoholism and suicidal ideation as he faces a prison sentence, Gandolfini presents a Tony Soprano devoid of charm. The performance elevates everything around it.
What’s So Batshit about It?
Killing Them Softly muffs its socio-political metaphors so badly, it’s easy to forget its thematic triumph: depicting violence in a way few big budget pictures do. There’s such ugliness and awfulness to it; Cogan is there to deal justice for the robbery, but there’s nothing righteous about the task. Granted, when Dominik shoehorns in dialogue about this it’s terrible (Clip 1 in the below video; incidentally, Clip 2 is a wonderful Gandofini scene and Clip 3 is some fine, unvarnished dialogue from the source novel)
Conversely, an extended parking-lot beating scene involving Ray Liotta’s unlucky Markie is unlike anything I’ve seen in a major thriller (possible exception: the unending knife-killing in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain). It just goes on and on; no one wants to be there or expects anything worthwhile to come of it. It just has to happen. In the nose-flicking allegory of Killing Them Softly, Markie is clearly Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, the one who had to be sacrificed. Fuld was a train-wreck CEO, but only marginally worse than Lloyd Blankfein, VIkram Pandit or any other big-market investor in the subprime market. Some people make it and some don’t; regardless of who’s who, the process will be ugly.
Can I Recommend It?
I wish I could do a fan edit of Killing Them Softly, in which I remove 80% of the Obama/Bush/McCain stuff. One or two judiciously placed references would have sufficed, but the theme-bludgeoning is unbearable. But I cannot make this edit, because I’m lazy and because I’m not Dominik. He made his directorial choices, some – the opening, the robbery, the Liotta beating, the Gandolfini scenes, the queasy final car ride with Pitt and McNairy – are breathtaking. Many did justice to the material; many undermined it. Whatever the ratio, I remain transfixed by this film: see it and decide for yourself.
Next on Profiles in Batshittery, I’ll discuss 2011’s stoner fantasia Your Highness.