Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams And Shoot Them In The Face

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 , 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. 

What Killing proved was that despite working in crime and westerns, is that Dominik is first a director of dialogue. The violence is there, and boy shit do you feel it, but his greatest impact is always when pitting two people against each other in conversation. It's an old trick - you let people know what you're capable of, then put them in ever smaller environments waiting for something bad to happen as they unwittingly provoke their own demise. He's aided by a first rate bunch of shitkickers. Brad Pitt pulls a 70s Brando and lets his presence say more than his actions and is a beautiful specimen as ever. Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are fucking mesmerizing. Something about Australian character actors is so terrifying and real (maybe it's the jutting lower lip to make room for those garbled consonants and roving vowels) and Mendelsohn is first rate. Like Nick Cave in Ghosts...of the Civil Dead or Joel Edgerton in The Square, Mendelsohn does a whole lot with a little. And McNairy couldn't remind me more of young Pacino; same nervous energy, same laid-back unscrupulousness, same go-for-broke appearance. Gandolfini is typically great, adding perfect little touches (Licking his lips, letting his train of thought move into his eyes) to his well-worn character type to delineate him from the rest. Vincent Curatola's pug-faced small-timer has nothing of the regality and poise he brought to his best known character, Johnny Sack, on The Sopranos. Ray Liotta proves himself still capable of breaking hearts just by trying so desperately to be reasonable. And Richard Jenkins is hilarious, plain and simple. With this fuckin' rogue's gallery, it'd be hard to let anyone down and Dominik isn't just anybody. I'm tempted to place his visual style first but then I realized that his crime films now outnumber his art films. Assassination was (and barring the work of Terrence Malick, is) the most beautiful film of the modern era, but did break from its visual reveries to tell an incredibly compelling narrative through one tense exchange after another. He's good at these scenes, never more so than in Assassination, but what I want to highlight is the way he handles these elements here and what makes Killing so fascinating and left-field. First, I suppose a little plot's in order: Frankie and Russell, two of the screens greatest lowlifes, are hired by Johnny 'Squirrel' Amato to knock over a protected card game knowing the powers that be will blame Mark Trattman, the guy who runs the game and has a history of fucking them over. So Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan is called in to deal with the loose ends and make sure that the right people know that 'justice' has been dealt to those responsible so they can go back to being crooks. This means taking care of Trattman, Squirrell, Russell and Frankie. Noting the enormity of the job, Jackie brings in Mickey Fallon, played by James Gandolfini, to help him complete the job. The rest involves spoilers and I already sorta kinda do that below, so let me press pause to highlight where the film turns the ordinary very extraordinary. When he gets off his plane and they have a drink at the airport bar, Gandolfini really gets into a story about what his life's looked like the last few years and Dominik lets him. The sound changes and everything gets a very subtle reverb as he talks about his wife threatening to divorce him for another guy, car horns drift in from the street, which for all intents and purposes is miles away. Gandolfini touches his glasses and the sound is enormous and echoes but he's unphased. The same thing will happen days later; Pitt tries to get his attention and it takes Gandolfini four additional sentences before he responds, but without the aid of the sound design. By then we know something's wrong, thanks mostly to the sound in the airport bar. Whether this is supposed to be due to Mickey's drinking problem or his serious emotional trouble is nerve made clear; like many other stylistic touches it's there to separate these men from the rest of the world. 

The sound is consistently excellent throughout, even if it doesn't always make new inroads. A standout comes when Pitt walks in on McNairy at a noisy bar and begins talking to him, each new sentence a revelation that pulls more and more of the ground out from under him. The Wreckery song in the background fades until you can't hear it and it's just Pitt and McNairy's voices. This effect is almost commonplace these days and it seems as though it's the climax of the scene when McNairy holds onto his honor knowing it'll mean his life. But the ace in the hole is when the music comes back in and Pitt starts to walk out and McNairy realizes that the movie moment doesn't mean shit when you could get killed as easily as the three people, two of them innocent bystanders, that Pitt happens to walk by on his way in the bar; death by shallow focus. So he very seriously reconsiders. These stylistic choices are there not so much to get into the heads of the characters, but to draw their attention to the bleak speed of the world around them. To that end Dominik spares no effect. Making a welcome return are the vignette-creating Deakinizers used in Assassination while Mendelson shoots heroin in his dirty fucking apartment. The many camera gymnastics up Killing's sleeve never grow old because they become the point of the movie; showing what Dominik does with a standard crime film. The events of the film aren't so myriad or outside convention as to necessarily be fascinating in and of themselves (I could picture this hitting bargain bins with Michael Madsen as Jackie Cogan in less capable hands), so what it becomes is a blank canvas for Dominik to engage in stylistic and technical tricks he couldn't afford or hadn't mastered when he made Chopper at the start of the last decade. So he pulls off a nifty bit of magic. The last time a George V. Higgins novel was adapted for the screen was 1973, the last boom year for New Hollywood - by '74 the film school brats were household names. By '75 Spielberg would dwarf all of them. So Dominik borrows heavily from the major players of the movement, who in turn were borrowing heavily from the Czechs, the French and the Poles. I can't have been the only one who thought of Mickey One during those impeccable opening titles or American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show while Mendelsohn and McNairy discuss classic cars while sitting in one before the heist. 

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 Mamabut 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. 

Dominik, who writes shorthand in calligraphy, makes this quite clear with the arrival of Gandolfini's Mickey Fallon. As he walks through the airport in slow-motion, using double exposure that wouldn't be out of place in a 30s musical, Nico's version of "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams" plays on the soundtrack. The original was a Tin Pan Alley toe-tapper but here it's wrapped in late 60s grime and contrapuntal instrumentation, not to mention Nico's inimitable Germanic tenor. And that is really what Killing Them Softly is: a cover of "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams," two or three depressions later. The appearance of songs like that and the original recordings of "Paper Moon" and "Life is a Bowl of Cherries" in the cars of people who would have no use for that music is as purposive as all the CNN and news radio we keep hearing - sure it's heavy handed, but it's also as focused as a spy satellite. Did the girls in 42nd Street talk about anything but money? Gandolfini's Fallon is, incidentally, the Dorothy Brock of Killing Them Softly, the shoe-in star who breaks her ankle before the big show and needs to be replaced by someone new. Dominik takes this turn of events down a very dark, fatalistic corridor when he makes Frankie the rising star who needs to fill in at the last minute, played by Daniels in 42nd Street. Imagine if the final number involved Daniels clog-dancing in crampons over a helpless, prostrate Brock and you have some idea the direction in which the story heads. When Jackie and Frankie discuss filling in for the big number in the bar (the aforementioned scene where, tellingly, the music fades out as they talk) Frankie expresses doubts that he can see it through. This isn't the first time that criminals express doubts that sound an awful lot like stage fright. This also mirrors the last film on Dominik's top 10, Night of the Hunter, with Jackie as the charismatic spectre of death watching over Frankie like Robert Mitchum's preacher over Bill Chapin's frightned little boy. Pitt is introduced with the same bravado as Mitchum; it's slick-hair and tinted shades instead of 'love' and 'hate' tattooed on his knuckles, but the effect is just as awe-inspiring. This is a man capable of getting whatever he wants. It's thus not surprising that when Frankie tries cleaning himself and moving up in the world he begins to resemble Jackie, even though he's never met him. He's a kind of myth and more than anything concrete the idea of Jackie has seeped into the unconscious of every two-bit fuckup for miles. His is is the style and affect to aspire to. People don't have to like him (the brothers who beat the shit out of Trattman at his behest hate him for asking them to), but they respect him. People know Anytime Annie by name in the world of 42nd Street, too, and she has the good sense, like Jackie, to know when she's right or wrong for the part. She steps aside for Daniels to take the lead role, just as Jackie goes looking for Frankie when he needs him most. In the end Frankie steps up to the plate, because with or without him, the show must go on. 

It's perhaps a little ironic that Killing Them Softly is out there dying very loudly at the box office as I write this. Just as people became outraged when they heard how much money had been spent on John Carter Of Mars (as if somehow they'd all been hit in the head and forgotten Transformers like humingbirds who love having their eyes assaulted), Killing's politics proved a tough sell (the two distinctly old-fashioned films were also sold short by awful, awful trailers). The one thing that Americans today evidently don't want is another reminder that they're broke and getting broker, alone and dancing their own numbers for an unseen group of corporate handlers like the ones Richard Jenkins' Councilor keeps answering to, the same people who hope to put Woody Guthrie in a cowboy get-up and demand he stop singing about politics, the same producers who make it possible for the chorus to sing "Shuffle off to Buffalo." We elected Obama, so things should be getting better. Yes we fucking can. That's why I voted for him, even if I know that things are gonna get a shit lot worse before they get better (and I'm a fucking filmmaker for christ's sakes, which means I'm basically unemployable). Killing Them Softly will likely not be remembered in the public eye as anything other than a sturdy crime film, and just as many people skip right to the Busby Berkley numbers in any given 30s musical, many may only remember the perfectly choreographed violence at the end of the day. If Killing has a flaw it's that the story doesn't seem to have enough personal significance for Dominik, who doesn't attempt to understand the men killing and being killed with the same humility and compassion he had in Chopper and Assassination. Perhaps oddly for an Australian, Dominik has twice now tried to make the great American movie. He's this fucking close and maybe when he stops hitting beats that seem like the definitive choice (like overgenerous narration in Assassination or using the song "Heroin" while someone shoots heroin in Killing) instead of the right choice, he'll start making perfect movies instead of fascinating almosts. I believe in Dominik (Yes He Can!), so I say to the producers who held him up between films and who will use this film's financial trouble against him next time: "Fuckin' pay him"

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