Monday, December 10, 2012
Killing Them Softly
There is a camera movement near the beginning of Killing Them Softly that tracks across the wide screen, from left-to-right, as two goons smash Ray Liotta through a window. Despite appearances, though, it is not a character-motivated camera movement. The camera moves in advance of the goons, arriving on the other side of the house before they emerge from it; and it centers the window in the frame before Liotta is smashed through it. Most Hollywood films shape their worlds around the movements and desires of their characters, but this one assumes a stylistic posture from which to observe its hapless gangsters and small-time criminals, as if they were dead insects pinned to a dartboard in a seedy urban bar. Or as if they are violent men in a dead-end economy - which they are. It's the antithesis of the long tracking shot following the same Liotta through the nightclub in Goodfellas (1990): the camera in the Scorsese film wants to share the energy of its wise guys. But Andrew Dominik, the smart stylist behind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the helmer of this new film, is all too aware that the gangster's violent energy ends only in economic and personal burnout, and so keeps his distance.
This elegant aesthetic distance is why the televisions and radios scattered throughout the movie, all playing snippets of speeches made by Obama, McCain, and Bush II during the 2008 campaign, feel like transmissions from another planet; Dominik's achievement is to make a recent moment in American history strange and unfamiliar, even though we are still living through its consequences. Killing Them Softly's losers are mere footnotes to the recent dismal history of the American economy none of them are fit to change, and which only one of them, a wearily philosophical hitman named Jackie, and played by Brad Pitt, comments upon. The movie is full of interesting moments and longueurs that suggest the glamor of the gangster as a genre figure is as exhausted as the economy which once fetishized him. How else to explain the wheezing, palpably unappealing presence of a disgusting character named Mickey, an alcoholic colleague of Jackie's played by an actor, James Gandolfini, who only ten years ago was this genre's undisputed icon of violent cool in The Sopranos?
Whatever the movie's genre revisionism, its star is still one of its central interests. Pitt has built - perhaps not quietly, but without the salient critical acclaim one might suspect he deserves - one of the most interesting filmographies of any beautiful male star in the history of Hollywood movies, and this audience-displeaser is a fascinating addition to his resume. He is lucky and smart enough to star in American films directed by filmmakers (Dominik, Fincher, Malick, Soderbergh) who demand more of his presence than mere presence, and that ask questions. Do gangsters steal because of tough economic times, or do tough economic times merely provide a new kind of excuse for lowlifes with guns? This is the question Killing Them Softly poses, without answering. I do not know the answer, either, but these times have provided an intriguing context in which to contemplate the lives of men who know the other only through the barrel of a gun.