Saturday 22 September 2012
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
(Andrew Dominik, 2012) If the last couple of decades have brought about a proliferation of dramas and black comedies all set within the lower to middle management ranks of the mob - everything from Goodfellas and The Sopranos to Analyze This - then George V Higgins can be considered very much ahead of his time. He was writing novels like this from 1970 onwards, and Peter Yates' terrific adaptation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle captures the world of those books with grit and precision both. Andrew Dominik's film adapts Higgins' book Cogans Trade, and aside from needlessly changing the title, alters little. The structure, characters and plot are generally identical, and much of the - quite brilliant - dialogue comes from Higgins verbatim. What is different is the setting. Higgins book was set in the grim mid-70s, but Dominick sets his film in 2008, the election year in which Barack Obama and John McCain battled to become US President while the American Economy virtually collapsed. He underlines this - a touch heavy-handedly - with recurrent cutaways to politicians discussing the economy on tv, and portions of scenes are soundtracked to similar speeches. This works mainly because Higgins was so interested in the workings of crime as a business. Here, Richard Jenkins is a harassed corporate stooge and middleman, needing committee approval to release funds, insisting that out of town hit men travel in economy. Everybody is on the make, everybody is out for himself, everybody is desperate to make money, and in a final scene (not quite in the book), Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan, a fixer-cum-assassin, makes that clear. This films last line is "Pay me my money". The story is told in tangents and filled with extended riffs and monologues by newly introduced characters, but the central plot focuses on two inept, ragged young ex-cons (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, both outstanding) who hold up a mob card game, and the fallout from this act. The mobster who runs the game, Markie (Ray Liotta) has to pay for past indiscretions, the two young cons have to pay, and their backer has to pay. So Cogan is brought in and he in turn brings in New York Jimmy (James Gandolfini, essaying another fine portrait of decaying masculinity) and Kenny (Slaine), while throughout cons and hitmen swap anecdotes about jail time sodomy, dogshit, prostitutes, and preferred murder methodology. Eventually, however, the violence must begin. And you just know that in the universe created by Higgins and Dominik, that violence will be coruscating. All of this might sound quite Tarantino-esque, and indeed it might be if not for the fact that Higgins influenced Tarantino but retains an essential, unique quality to his storytelling ably imitated here, and for Dominik's distinctively muscular sense of cinema. Here is a Director with a Capital D, composing scenes with dazzling assurance, from the opening sound-clash walk through rubbish in the wind to the heroin high scored (familiarly but satisfyingly) by the Velvet Underground to the bravura scenes of shocking violence. This world also sets itself apart from those of Tarantino's work by its grit; Dominik textures it so that it feels like the world we live in, rain-slicked and shabby as it is, its junkies looking like they stink, its cars and clothes and beer bottles all quotidian and weighted. Pitt has rarely been better (though he chews on his lips as usual), age giving him a bearing and depth his youthful beauty never allowed, and his scenes with a mordant, droll Jenkins are a delight. All this in a film with no real hero, no fixed character to root for; which may be Dominik's point; in a world as torn by economic trauma as todays, there is no space for honour, loyalty, no room for anybody to be a good guy. Instead there is only the struggle for money, the battle for survival, which gives the violence in Killing Them Sofly so much sting. Cogan says it in his slightly didactic last speech: "In America, you're on your own." Dominik is a major filmmaker, and his ambition is to be applauded, even if it only partially comes off in this instance. Still, Killing Them Softly is big, bold, beautiful American filmmaking with wit and flash, that would not have looked out of place in the 1970s, and that is very high praise indeed.