Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Film Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik
Stars: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins

The crime genre is one which has been tried and tested ever since cinema began but in the modern age it appears as if nearly every crime picture takes its influence from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, or Quentin Tarantino and originality is seldom seen either in story, film making, or often both. 

Based on the 1974 novel Coogan’s Trade (as the film was tentatively called in production), Killing Them Softly sets out to be different from the pack, but the end result is very much a mixed bag. The problem with the film is in the pure entertainment value it offers rather than any faults with the film making itself; the story of a card game knocked off and the subsequent hunting down of the men who carried out the crime should be gripping and engaging regardless of any political undertones, but the film gradually becomes a bore and fails to hold the attention.

Given the quality of the first 30 minutes or so, this is a disappointment because the film shows real potential. The dialogue is colourful and characters are very unlikable (misogynistic, drug addicts, killers for hire) from the get-go and despite some overly Tarantinoesque dialogue which is pale in comparison, the film gives us a very good and very dark opening act. The film takes place whilst George Bush is President and Barack Obama is making his pledges to change the economic turmoil the USA is in and this is a key reason why the film will later fall apart, but in the opening act it feels as just an aside for context’s sake. Director Andrew Dominik excels in the heist scene at the card game and builds tension you can feel; moreover, there is a brutally scene where a character is beaten so hard he pukes blood. It is violent but realistic and the angles are never gratuitous in their capturing of the event.

The remaining hour or so, however, is a languid affair. The dialogue and scenes are set up to relentlessly hammer home what should be a subtle comment on the state of American economics; scenes have Presidential addresses on TV and radio and characters comment on what is said in a way which draws attention to the mechanics of the scriptwriting process and never feels natural for a moment. The introduction of a hitman (James Gandolfini) who drinks and bangs his way through life slows the film down to a snail’s pace and adds nothing to the interesting set up of the opening act. The lead character, Jackie Coogan (Brad Pitt) is not believable on the screen as he may have been on the page; it’s not the fault of Brad Pitt who is as dependable as ever but possibly mis-cast here. Some of the slow motion shots paired with source music which is picked seemingly to be either ironic (Love Letters Straight From Your Heart during a shooting) or painfully obvious (When The Man Comes Around to introduce Coogan) just do not work and do not have the effect of being ‘cool’ for this can be the only reason they were included. Coogan is not a ‘cool’ guy and he is a killer and makes no attempt to hide it or his desire to get paid for his deadly services, yet the casting of an actor with Pitt’s looks with his leather jacket, goatee beard, and red-tinted shades gives such a character the wrong look and again makes the film look like a study in Tarantinoism.

Ultimately the film fails to deliver an entertaining output with its political comments, over use of slow motion (my number one pet hate in modern cinema), dialogue which doesn’t ring true, and a story which runs out of steam far too early.

On another note, Andrew Dominik’s directorial choices as the film went on really disappointed me namely because his last film, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, is a film I believe truly deserving of the accolade ‘modern classic’ and is a five star masterpiece the likes of which are so rare. Killing Them Softly feels and looks like this was Dominik’s first film, not a follow up to that piece of celluloid art.

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