I’m half-tempted to dub 2012 The Year of the Enigma Film. Perhaps “enigma” isn’t right, maybe “polarizing” is more accurate. But what I’m getting at is that 2012 seems to be cinematically defined by films that have divided.
I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone liking Holy Motors. I’ve read several reviews of love, and just as many of hate. For every person who considers David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis a disastrous waste of time (like me), there is a Top 10 list to argue otherwise. The Master, Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, hell, all the back to Haywire, people can’t seem to find common ground this year. And you know what? I dig it. It’d be boring as shit if we all agreed on what’s gold and what’s garbage. Now, to add to the separation, we have Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a comedy crime drama to end all comedy crime dramas.
About six minutes into Killing Them Softly, I knew precisely why my foreign friends loved it and many Americans hate it: the film is slow, laboriously conversational, crude, and in no way the action shoot ‘em up that its trailers have promised. Oh, and star Brad Pitt isn’t in it half as much as you’d think. Now, while what I’ve just described may not tickle the fancy of domestic audiences (including several people I saw the film with, who left long before the final credits cued), it is a film that is perfectly suited to my tastes.
Killing Them Softly begins in a way I’ve never seen a film begin. The credits are scored to inexplicably unsettling musical tones, which are feverishly crosscut with a man in silhouette walking out of a tunnel. When we’re on the man, we hear ecstatic cheers nearly drown out a speech given by (then) Senator Barack Obama. Cut to credits, haunting music. Cut to man walking, Obama speech. Back and forth and back and forth. An eerie intro that paves way for something destined to be different.
The man walking is Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, perfect in Animal Kingdom, better here) a greasy thief meeting his paranoid partner, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to discuss a job with a local thug. The job in question is knocking off an underground card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, bloated and flawless). Once the game is successfully robbed, the charming, cold, and calculating Jackie (Brad Pitt, continuing his impeccable roll) is brought in to find those responsible. And that’s the film. Kind of.
I’m glossing over details, because that’s where the beauty lies. Point in fact, Killing Them Softly never makes watching it an easy experience. As is evident in his masterful, criminally ignored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik would much rather talk about something, than do something. The (many) conversations that the (many) layered characters partake in during this film are extended and seemingly superfluous. Often, they aren’t even talking about the film’s story at hand, but rather, the whore’s they’ve screwed, the heroin they’re going to buy, or the nabbed dogs they’re going to sell.
Now, while I can see how this method of movie conversation can throw some (most…?) viewers off, I’d argue that this intense level of character development allows the viewer to really know the film’s characters, as opposed to just what they aim to do. Must movies gives us the what, rarely do we fully comprehend the why.
Take, for instance, James Gandolfini’s character, Mickey, in this film, who is brought in to help Jackie whack those who need whacking. Gandolfini is in two scenes in Killing Them Softly, and I know more about him than I do about most movie characters in films released this year. His desperation and anger and dread and self-loathing – a lot of that comes from Gandolfini being a very good actor, but much of it is in the weighty script.
This is a different kind of film for a different kind of audience. Personally, I can’t tell you how refreshing I find a movie that takes risks; a movie made by an outsider who somehow painted a more accurate picture of America (and the tarnished American dream), better than most Americans do. Killing Them Softly certainly isn’t for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t pretend to be. By the end (the glorious, perfectly-timed end), I was sitting back, marveling at something I had never seen before, and likely won’t see again for many years to come. A