A black screen, a digital wail courtesy of Carl Stone's "Moon Dance." Then a doorway in the midst of the black, outside things float in the air like some of Ridley Scott's gorgeous debris in Legend, except this has a dirtier look, something less than natural and overwhelming. The noise has changed, it's the roar of an audience, though it takes a moment to register. Then the black again, now with the first of many production house names that made this movie happen. That's just how it goes nowadays. Suddenly I'm back at the Kendall Square Cinema feeling a similar exhaustion at the sheer volume of producers needed to bring Jane Campion's heartbreaking Bright Star to life in front of my eyes at the end of 2009. Then we're back to the door, a little closer, tracking towards the door. Then black, the noise more intense and angular now that its been contrasted with the sound of the crowd, a very easy thing to understand. Now we see the similarly angular figure of a young man, Frankie, hugging his sides like the hero of a Velvet Underground song (the connection's made explicit later). His hair stuck into points after days of not showering, his coat clean simply because it takes something serious to get denim to lose its shine and because Frankie's a little vainer than he first appears. This goes on: black, then Frankie, then black, then Frankie. The rhythm grows quicker as we get shorter and shorter glimpses of Frankie and the title is given word by word. The contrast, with that noise matched to the black frame and white titles, sounding like something from an Italian space opera or giallo from the late 60s. My mind was in Guido Anselmi's spaceship in 8½, or Philipe Leroy's bachelor pad in Femina Ridens. The half second cuts verge on subliminal by the end and I couldn't help but laugh because the edit doesn't let you get a grip. The first time it's funny, the third time it's hilarious. So there I am laughing at a formalist joke while the rest of the audience sits either stone silent ('Grant's tomb', to quote Richard Jenkins' Councilor) or talking amongst themselves. I saw the film twice - once dimly projected on a yellowing screen in a pocket city almost as poor as the New Orleans neighborhoods that the film takes place in, the other in crisper digital in a wealthier town in a theatre run by a conversative nutcase (I miss celluloid. Dearly. Like the girl you grow up loving, I'll never get over film) - so I got two audiences, both seemingly confused, or worse indifferent, to the fun Andrew Dominik was having with them. Then we follow Frankie as he walks out of the warehouse, slow-motion making its first of many welcome appearances, and out into the parking lot where a hundred destroyed plastic bags float around in the seething winds of grey, never-uglier New Orleans. Scott Tobias describes Scoot McNairy's Frank (and Ben Mendelsohn's Russell who he's there to meet) as looking like a human sewer rate and in the opening that description is most apt: he walks crookedly, smoking, one eye half-closed as if stitched after a fight, the world blowing in his face harder than the wind ever could. I was well aware of the mixed reaction the film's endured. Mike D'Angelo had warned us that the excitement generated by the opening quickly dissipates, but I'm a fan of Dominik's (a big one), and this had to be one of the best openings I've ever seen, especially in a 21st century majorish American release. So I nodded genially and said "ok, what else you got?"
Killing Them Softly
by Andrew Dominik
It's worth pointing out that Cogan's Trade, the name of the George V. Higgins novel from which the plot is taken, would have been a better name for this film, even if no one ever calls Brad Pitt's mob enforcer by his full name. But if they had to stick with a choice line of dialogue, they should have gone for it and called it Killin' 'em Softly. The dialect is too ragged to keep all those words intact. The title doesn't do the film justice. So I suppose I'll turn my hand over and admit that I think it deserves better, which means I like it. I do. I very much enjoyed it even if isn't perhaps up to the standard of its director's last film, minor masterpiece The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. The problem is Dominik didn't learn from the few problems of that film - his overemphasizing our need for information, for subtext. Subtext hammered home quickly becomes text, which then means you have two textual threads running and one of those is the plot. There isn't really room for it. Assassination relies to a large but forgivable extent on the words of the book from which it takes its title, but damningly relies on delivering it in the completely dead voice of Hugh Ross, the man who read the audiobook. It took many viewings for me to get completely over its effect and enjoy the film for what it is - a completely singular achievement, in cinematography especially. The film plays like the ghost of Heaven's Gate reaping all those years without a proper ghostly western exploding our myths about the frontier and the outlaw. Dominik has a view of criminals that falls between amusement and contempt, but it comes from fascination so he doesn't exactly write them off. It's telling that he thinks of his debut, Chopper, a nervewracking character study about a career criminal, as a comedy. Killing Them Softly is the same kind of comedy. The jokes are hilarious when they show up but largely the laughter is of the nervous variety. Or more accurately, the "Holy fucking shit, these people…" variety.
Another way to think of it is through the helpful cheat-sheet Dominik gave his fans when he submitted his top ten list in Sight & Sound earlier this year. Assassination is Terrence Malick by way of Barry Lyndon (props must be given to Roger Deakins in helping him achieve that feat); Killing is just about everything else. Scorsese provides the electric current behind the occasional tracking shot, whether its following Brad Pitt out of his car (one of the best shots in the film) or out of a dive bar bathroom on election night. The richly textured mob life that provides the backdrop for the main action comes courtesy of Goodfellas (Ray Liotta's casting is no accident. He's essentially playing Henry Hill if he'd never left the life and just burned down to low-level operator). There are myriad other touches like the real-life stumbled-onto-film feel of Mean Streets, the societal cruelties of The King of Comedy or the textural mixtures that occasionally bleed into double exposures like those in Age of Innocence. Most impressive of these is when Dominik stages a one-sided beating as if it's one of Raging Bull's boxing scenes. You feel every punch twice as hard. When Ketty Lester's "Love Letters" scores a slow-motion shooting, it echoes with Scorsese's influence but feels new all the same (thanks in no small part to the high speed film that captures the moment). This was among the first times that I was willing to accept digitally enhanced 'bullet time'; the hammer hitting the back of the gun is beautiful, as is the truck collision that closes the scene. Knock-out stuff. Coppola gets his due first in a tracking shot straight out of the first act of Apocalypse Now of Ben Mendelsohn walking to meet McNairy, improbably standing on a stray chair, which is admittedly a more Malickian piece of imagery. But then when we enter the backroom for the cardgame hold-up, a nail-biter handled with the utmost precision and confidence, we're in the Louis Restaurant waiting for Michael Corleone to come out of the bathroom. The ticks and tells are different, but the feeling is the same. It's been too long since I've seen Marnie to know if he took anything specifically, but even a casual cinephile would spot a split second Vertigo(/Jaws) down a hallway as Pitt heads to Gandolfini's hotel room. And that hallway looks to be a little crib from Hal Ashby's The Landlord. Look for other Ashby touches in the grey, black and brown color scheme and the fascination with poor characters underneath the thumb of rich ones.
That's a crucial connection, by the way, because the harking to the 70s serves two purposes. Ashby and Coppola weren't the only filmmakers who turned to the recent past (specifically the depression) for solace in the Nixon-ruled 1970s. Scorsese's first feature length film, Boxcar Bertha was a depression era shoot 'em up with violence that would look like Dominiks if it he shot it today. Lawless, another film that played Cannes this year made by Australians (Nick Cave and John Hillcoat), looks more directly into this same area of history by essentially being an update of Boxcar Bertha or Big Bad Mama, but has little interest in functioning very effectively, like the suped-up jitney the bootleggers drive to evade the cops. But I digress. If Coppola and Scorsese used the past to illuminate the present and occasionally set their films there, Peter Bogdanovich never seemed to make a film set after both Presidents Roosevelt had died. The inclusion of the song "Paper Moon" near the end of the film, as Pitt cleans up a grisly crime scene, is first a reference to Bogdanovich's film of the same name but also points the way toward this being in the tradition of the musical comedies made to turn moviegoers minds from their troubles. Both Ashby in Bound for Glory and Bogdanovich in Nickelodeon, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, show people attempting to either simply scrape by while the poor get poorer or trying to make the lives of others easier by entertaining them, giving them a reason to live. The two lovable fuckups in Last Picture Show rely on films just as surely as the two lovable fuck ups in Killing rely on big, messy robberies.
The arcs are different, but if you think of the heist and its clean up as a broadway show it makes a little more sense. There's the very obvious metaphor running about financial security in the years around Obama's election (killing Trattman, reasons Jackie, should get everyone back in the spending mood; Obama had to come up with the same basic idea when he took office in the middle of a depression and he's practically a character in Killing Them Softly) but one step further and you realize that there need to be witnesses to these crimes in order for them to have any kind of impact. Just as Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie has to sing to the disenfranchised to get their spirits up and thinking about a union or Bebe Daniels has to steal her co-stars hearts before she can be the surprise upset in 42nd Street, Pitt brings a loud mouth hood played by Ben Affleck perennial Slaine with him on one job, knowing he'll spread the word when it's over. It's not at all a surprise then that the killing that follows is lingered over as if it were a plaintive dance. They're putting on a show for the men behind the scenes, the producers, so they know their money is safe.