Posted by: gdevi | April 20, 2013

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly, directed by the New-Zealand born director Andrew Dominik is a neo-noir film that aspires to be in the territory staked out by Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorcese. It is not a bad movie at all; it is just that it gets too preachy and sincere at times. I enjoyed it and watched it straight the first time through without turning it off, even though there were several points in the movie, where I wished the dialog didn’t say what it did.

Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are two small-time, low life crooks in a post-Katrina dilapidated New Orleans who agree to work for “Squirrel,” (Vincent Curatola), another low-to-middling crook in planning and executing a robbery at a mob-controlled poker game. Like in all good noirs, the crooks have another life to them which interferes with their crook aspirations. Frankie is a weak, insecure, frightened man. Russell steals pure-bred dogs and sells them to make money for his heroin habit. They are crooks and criminals because they have these other things they have to feed in their lives. Such people make bad criminals and the heist goes haywire. Rather than just taking the poker bank, they rob the individual players. The people won’t trust the mafia anymore.

There is an allegorical level to this movie and though it is a good one, Dominick makes it an obvious one. I would have preferred it were it more oblique. Here it is: why does Squirrel think he can rob the mafia? Because, as he explains to Frankie and Russell, once before, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a mob boss had pulled a “staged heist” on one of his own poker games, and kept all the money. An “inside-job.” Apparently, he later revealed it to his crime syndicate, and they let him go; even though Trattman robbed them, they laughed it off. So Squirrel says, now, in  New Orleans, if anybody pulls a poker heist, the suspicion will immediately fall on Trattman, and the mafia will go after Trattman and not the current criminals. Sounds like a foolproof plan, doesn’t it? As a running commentary throughout the movie, Dominick intercuts these criminal dealings with the 2008 McCain-Obama election, the 2008 financial breakdown crisis, the sub-prime housing mortgage meltdown, the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the government bailing out of the banks. In economist Paul Krugman’s words, the corruption engineered by the shadow banking system in our country in collusion with the high-stakes investors, banking regulators and the federal government. The analogy between the criminal poker ring heist, its back story with Trattman et al, and the 2008 financial meltdown and government’s role in it, Obama’s role in it, become too clear, in other words. It should have been more subtle, in my opinion.

So when the heist goes awry, the crime syndicate makes their “lawyer,” Driver, played by my favorite favorite actor Richard Jenkins contact Jackie Cogan, played wonderfully by Brad Pitt–sometimes we tend to forget what a good actor Brad Pitt is–to find the two people responsible for robbing the mob. I loved how Dominick introduces Jackie Cogan to the screen. Johnny Cash has written some great songs, hasn’t he?, and we see Jackie driving into New Orleans to the accompaniment of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. It is a great song, and perfect for the noir genre. Unlike the midway criminals distracted by drugs, women, liquor and the like, Jackie Cogan has no such distractions. He is a criminal and a killer down to his DNA. In a parallel universe, he would be god. That is the point of the song and the noir; when things reach a certain point, you are who you are, and the executioner is your redeemer. I loved Brad Pitt’s playing of this character. He is only interested in cleaning up the mess Frankie, Russell and Squirrel made so that the mafia can move on and business can operate as usual, and New Orleans can function again from its shiny surfaces to the dirty depths. He has no other agenda. Dominick has really understood the raison d’etre of the noir genre. Jenkins and Pitt have great chemistry together. Both calm, reasonable men, they are both characters who instinctively understand how dumb the three criminals were in the large scheme of things. You can’t rob the government.

Much of the movie is given over to working out this particular aesthetic of the noir. Some great lyrical scenes include Frankie trying to get a completely drugged-out Russell to tell him what he told a mob mole; Jackie trying to get Mickey (James Gandolfini), another mob hit-man to stop distracting himself with prostitutes and alcohol and stay sober enough to kill Frankie and Russell. In other words, in the words of our bard in Absolutely Sweet Marie, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”  Or, as Dylan’s own noir source put it in the 1958 film noir The LineUp written by Stirling Silliphant: “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.”

Except for certain moments of heavy-handedness in dialogue–I am thinking of Jackie’s final comments about America being a business and not a country–this is true on some level, but isn’t it better off not said?– this is a movie that moves along smoothly. Noir is the only genre that can rationally and narratively deal with the ideology of capitalism, and this movie does that very well. Noir is one of the most unique American contributions to literature and film. Great acting all around. Excellent editing and cinematography. The soundtrack is good as well, if a bit too obvious. But it works.  See it if you haven’t. You can rent it on amazon instant streaming video.

Here is Johnny Cash, When the Man Comes Around.

Here is George Harrison singing Absolutely Sweet Marie. 

I was trying to find Dylan singing the song on YouTube but I could not find any by him. There are numerous covers. I have no idea who this band is, but they are very good. I liked this cover much. [ps.: you know, the more I listen to this song, it reminds me of The Clash. Very nice.]

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