Friday, November 30, 2012

Talky KILLING THEM SOFTLY Gives Us A Lesson In Gangster Economics

Opening today in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Although this film is based on the 1974 crime novel “Coogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, fans of The Sopranos are going to find its trappings familiar. Not only because it features Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, and series regulars Vincent Curatola, and Max Casella, but because its scenario set-up about low level idiots that try to get ahead by robbing a mob protected card game is ground well trodden by David Chase’s iconic characters.

But director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik, re-united with his THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES star, Brad Pitt, has loftier goals that just staging a big screen Sopranos episode. Dominik sets the story in New Orleans in 2008, and we are taken back to the days of Obama getting elected during the country’s economic collapse via a string of television screens in the background always tuned to the news. The underlying implication is that the mafia is yet another American corporation whose business model is faltering in these tough times.

Pitt, with slicked back hair, shades, and goatee, plays an enforcer for the mob who’s brought in to track down the three low level idiots who thought it was a good idea to rob a high-stakes card game run by the fidgety stressed-out Ray Liotta. Liotta, is in real hot water with this theft, because he’s robbed the game before himself, and he’s going to take the blame for this one.

An often smirking Richard Jenkins, brings his Nathaniel Fisher (the all-knowing ghost dad on Six Feet Under) confidence in his part as Pitt’s contact, a jaded mob lawyer, who says matter-of-factly that “this is a business of relationships,” ever so slyly adding to the movie’s not-so-subtle set of themes.

Gandolfini shows up as a boozing burn-out of a hitman that Pitt seems to think he needs in order to pull off the job. Gandolfini and Pitt have a few intense and intimate scenes together; one on one exchanges in which you feel their history together both as these shady guys, and as actors who’ve worked together for 2 decades, starting with Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE. 

Despite some vivid violence (this movie is where to go to see Liotta getting the shit beaten out of him), it’s a dialogue-driven film, all about the sit-downs. The power and thrust of the film’s thesis can be found in Pitt’s parked car consultations with Jenkins, Gandolfini’s meaty monologues, and the frightened babbling of Scoot McNairy’s Frankie (one of the idiots involved in the card heist), who steals the movie out from under the bigwigs when he’s onscreen with his perfectly unhinged performance.

As McNairy’s partner in crime and stupidity, Ben Mendelsohn (ANIMAL KINGDOM) is also effective as a seedy heroin addict you can’t believe anybody would trust to get them coffee, let alone pull off a dangerous job.

Pitt, who is one of 17 (!) different producers on this project, provides a solid performance, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen him do before. Still, the man’s particular brand of presence is never bland.

Sort of like a mash-up of GOODFELLAS and MARGIN CALL, KILLING THEM SOFTLY may be a bit too talky for its target audience. 

Because of its marketing, which highlights the stars, the stylishness and the one explosion, audiences are likely to think that it’s a different movie than it is - much like Anton Corbijn’s THE AMERICAN, which looked like a commercial George Clooney action flick, or Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, which looked like a commercial Ryan Gosling car chase thriller. Both turned out to be artsy cerebral takes on their genres, and while film buffs like me loved them, I knew many folks who were turned off.

This take on the gangster drama genre deserves an audience’s attention, even if the dry tone that Dominik creates, along with the immaculately shot framework (by cinematographer Grieg Fraser) surrounding some of the year’s most astonishing acting, ultimately makes more of an impression than any of the political points he’s attempting to make.

More later...

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