Killing Them Softly
Killing Them Softly opens with a longish shot which slowly jump-cut shakes down a tunnel leading onto a debris-strewn, wind-whipped expanse full of scraps of swirling litter, a ticker-tape parade from which the revellers have long fled, backdropped by ’08 McCain/Obama campaign posters. The shot is intercut with interference-scratch over black-panel credits, a warping of an already post-apocalyptic cityscape, and the effect is apt. The rain-spattered ruins of New Orleans, already Katrina-pummelled and moribund, is now host to Andrew Dominik’s bleak update of the George V Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade, a doubly-depressive setting for economic meltdown and an opportunistic heist gone predictably and disastrously askew.
Ray Liotta’s Markie runs Mob poker games from a gruesomely lit (rusting metals and colour-sapped portent) rogue’s den on the fringes of town. The scene is all rain rattle on cold corrugated roofs and blue-tinged twilight. These characters are ghosts hiding from humdrum life, and Liotta looks ever more like a wraith, some ghoulish, recently whacked marginal hoodlum refusing to expire. (He gets a kicking later on in the film so monumental that his reappearance thereafter only exacerbates this suspicion.) The game is interrupted by masked thieves who scarper with the kitty; Liotta, in flashback, maniac-laughs a concession as to his involvement in the in-house robbery.
Said flashback appears as part of Brad Pitt’s opening monologue to Driver (Richard Jenkins). Pitt is hitman Jackie Cogan, enlisted by The Mob via the uncomfortably straight interlocutor Driver to sort out various quandaries and internecine squabbles, ‘sort out’ in this context running from menaces to morgue-induction. Cogan runs through the backstory: Liotta, who has been robbed a second time, has to be ‘taken out’, irrespective of his involvement in the latter job, as to fail to would be to invite ridicule and a suggestion of Mob weakness: Liotta’s original give-a-shit confession, following the second heist, means his position is untenable.
The actual perpetrators of the second take are a cobbled-together duo (a superbly cast, gloriously wasted/out-of-their-depth team-up of Ben Mendelsohn (Russell) and Scoot McNairy (Frankie)), involved at the behest of Vincent Curatola’s Kenny (front: dry-cleaners), who recognises Liotta for the sitting duck he is and believes any further poker hits would lead to him bearing the brunt for both jobs, leaving any new opportunists in the clear.
It’s a dubious-at-best idea left for these self-confessed buffoons to execute: they schlepp into the poker meet through the back (wonderful sound editing during this scene that captures the sense-heightened terror of the uninvited swag-grabbers) wearing bright-yellow rubber gloves, and such bumbling conspicuousness typifies the assault. We’re never sure whether or not the pair are going to get out alive or wounded, whether or not a last-ditch Liotta plea will fall on sympathetic Mendelsohn ears or not, whether any of the empty-pocketed players will act on their understanding of the invaders’ panic and turmoil and call their bluff; we sense that something must go wrong. But, eventually, they both get out with the briefcases of booty and the raid is a seeming success.
But, of course, the amateur cash-collectors’ all-round indiscreet ineptness leads to the introduction of Cogan, who soon easily gets wind of the entire, flaw-fevered farrago. Cue the first of the film’s real problems (an overriding problem, not fatal but duly irritating, being the constant radio/TV overkill, a burbling, over-burdensome feed of carefully selected 2008 media coverage of the financial meltdown and subsequent sloganeering/commentary). There’s a drug scene, in a wonderfully obvious wrecking-ball-ready living room, involving Mendelsohn and McNairy. You get (I assume) a decent approximation of equivalent oblivion. There’s a tricksy but useful splicing of sunburst-euphoric flare effects, weird rotating fish-eye sweeps, amplified drag-and-burn spliff sounds and hollowed-out conversational fades, all coalescing and combining to comprise easily one of the better such cinematic examples. Yet it seems a little rather like a fabulous moment that the director was never going to relinquish than a crucial component. Nonetheless, the scene cleverly coils itself around a fatal revelation played accurately for hapless blissed-out laughs and is a delirious moment of respite amidst all the grimy gloom.
However: not even Scorsese (who is an unavoidable precedent in such matters, no longer merely ‘influential’ but often ‘inadvertently referenced’), who Dominik clearly and admiringly retreads, can get away with the kind of soundtrack howler that has a slow-zoom slow-mo drug (yes, heroin) scene accompanied by that Velvet Underground song. It has the feel of a slipshod post-production tinker: you can’t help wondering whether the scene was initially minus music and this was considered far too raw; it surely would’ve benefited from silence rather than a piece of music so obvious as to leave you agog with the sheer laziness of it. He may as well’ve thrown Gimme Shelter over the top of Liotta getting whacked and be done with it: we could’ve all had a heartfelt laugh rather than suffered an involuntary and rueful guffaw. Anyway: you can’t use the song Heroin during a heroin scene without running the risk of clanging a spanner into your works. Dominik then uses Nico’s Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (do these guys get a job lot of songs cheaper? Can you soundtrack a film in bulk at a reduced rate? When they got in touch with Universal, did someone return with, “Hey, you’re taking Heroin from The Velvet Underground & Nico: how about Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams for 75% the normal fee while you’re at it? Marty did likewise with Devo, Virgin flogged him Whip It on the cheap on top of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction…”) and it starts to feel a little token. There can surely be no decent justification for such by-numbers musical equivocation. *
Cogan enlists another hitman, the exceptional James Gandolfini, to take down the assorted miscreants, but the latter is in a bad way: jumpy, seriously alcoholic (he quickly, in his opening airport bar scene, downs every drink in sight and orders another), bitter, melancholic, a vacillating ruin. Gandolfini soon proves far from up to the task (he holes up in a hotel room and continues to get hammered, ramble-rants, samples every whore in town, despairs, everything but complete his assignation) so Pitt frames him to get rid and steps into the breach (he doesn’t seem too slighted by this inconvenience). Mendelsohn has, by this point, been snagged and canned whilst procuring his carelessly stashed shank of heroin.
There’s a speech at one juncture pertaining to the title and to Cogan’s reluctance to shoot anyone close up, lest they ‘start to plead for their mother. It all gets touchy feely…I hate touchy feely. I’d rather kill them softly, from a distance.’ Cogan, in quickly amending his sloppy delegation, has to relinquish this principle. He nails the much-maligned Liotta from an adjacent car in what can only be described as a lovingly over-orchestrated sequence: you get a close-up of the gun, which is here a pornish contraption of ineffable wonder. Every drop of rain on the device is crystal-clear, and even those, as they slow-mo roll off the velvety-rubber-looking chamber or float away during recoil, seem deferential, delighted to have been extras in this particular execution. At one point Liotta falls back in death throes like a grand martyr in an operatic apocalypse. The first bullet leads Liotta’s car into a lurch-and-careening-crash-shunt that eventually swings him headfirst through the windscreen, and the slow, crisp tinkle-shatter, like the gentle, reluctant crack of a sheet of ice, that unfolds is pointlessly forensic in its languorous indulgence. It’s a bizarre finale for a character who has barely been on the screen, and yet, as well as being afforded a darkly-funny but merciless battering, replete with all kinds of outlandish sound-effect extravagances (it gets a bit arcade beat-em up cartoonish in its breathlessly inventive sonic vigour), he then gets an almost comically magnificent exit, for no good reason. So we have to assume that Dominik is just having fun. Death scenes surely need to befit the victim, at the very least. Personally, I’m never sure about cinematic demises that soften the intent, from the severe and remorseless vanquishing it is meant to represent here: the actual effect is that it feels like a kind of pyrotechnically avid hiatus of vacuous violent lust. The shards that slowly roll through the air in the wake of this murder click and tap off surfaces, the streetlight shimmer off each glass shred offering a sparkling array of euphoric sex-death luminescence.**
Cogan then punches grim-reaper sized holes in his remaining quarry to no fanfare whatsoever: just the cold blam of his gun, no longer a lingered-over angel of death, just a vicious, unanswerable tool. I’m happier with the sheer surfaces of Dominik’s films: he’s better when simply framing a spiritually abandoned, rain-sweating street in New Orleans (or, say, an approaching train in cold dark, Jesse James waiting), trails of garbage skittering in icy breezes, as two dead-men-walking conjecture their own imminent erasure than he is obsessing over artfully empty incidentals. When the film sticks to this, people talking, unadorned gloom and capricious undercurrents, pawns being moved around and misdirected by misanthropes, it’s a blast. There are just too many issues for it to be considered anything other than an interesting failure. Having said all that, it originally ran to 150 mins, the restoration of which may well unveil a masterful epic (this is the Jesse James helmsman, after all) and cast a more favourable light over moments such as the for now jarring Liotta death scene. Best wait for the DVD.
* Scorsese has form here, incidentally, and it’s something that perhaps Dominik might’ve been a little more wary: these moments are so potentially powerful, so loaded with reference points, so harking to other similar moments in the crime/thriller pantheon, that you can derail the whole thing with a bad musical selection. That Scorsese somehow gets away with so much Rolling Stones is partly something to do with his mastery of the form: when Nicholson is unveiled to the strains of Gimme Shelter in The Departed, we buy it because: it doesn’t directly reference the scene, other than as a back-reference to Scorsese’s own stuff (and prompts all kinds of self-referential questions that may be interesting in themselves) and Scorsese owns these moves now: yes he borrowed from myriad other directors but the shoot-em up and jukebox-domineered scenes you see in any film now automatically smell and feel like Scorsese-riffing tributes. In Casino, mind you, Scorsese gets it wrong: he has decided Devo will work in his film. He’s wrong. But he throws two Devo tunes on there, and the geek-bubblegum freneticisms of Devo do not align themselves well with a recreated Vegas shot Scorsese style: he even ratchets up the speed of a particular scene to adhere to Devo’s mad-synth pace on the song Whip It. The result is, to say the least, jarring. It’s like your dad rolling a Justice tune over his latest Crown Green Bowling footage: not what the action needs. And even worse, all I could think during the Devo-led Casino scenes was: someone has told ‘Marty’ about a quirky cover of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, he’s gone out and bought Hot Potatoes to have a listen and got a little over enthused. Dominik’s use in Killing Them Softly of Jack Hylton & His Orchestra’s Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries, just before the final reel, however, is comparatively stupendous. It’s still Scorsese-esque but you can’t really play songs over violence if you want to elude that fact’s grasp. And there’s something about playing the right song over such action that’s unfathomably exhilarating and always has been. Tarantino has based an entire career on raising those hackles. Sofia Coppola still thinks her Gus Van Sant + indie records blueprint is inviolable. Dominik is as susceptible to setting the scene just so he can pop a quarter in the slot and let you know he’s happy for you to go ‘Dah-nah-nah-nah-nang!’ like Beavis or Butthead and feel the vicarious testosterone-cool buzz afforded by such lavishly unreal mash-ups. And it detracts, in the end, from Killing Them Softly. There’s too much of it that serves no purpose other than to dilute the film with thoughtless sameyness.
** Scorsese murder, be it in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, wherever, is always stylishly conceived: it is not excitable or deferential or, at any point, anything other than horrific. His mastery is in part his marrying of laughter and sheer terror: think of car boots and knives, a meal with mother and a painting. You feel everything, constantly. He’s not making cartoons; he’s certainly not making films with any sense of technical grandeur that doesn’t directly reference characterisation.