Killing Them Softly
Directed by Andrew Dominik
In 2007, the recession’s rapid emergence—the Dow peaked on October 9—coincided with the commercially stillborn September release of director Dominik’s brilliant, unmarketable, nearly three-hour Western The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford. Dominik has just recovered from the film’s failure, and he’s taken on the economy’s for his third feature. In the September 2008 that Aussie-transplant Dominik envisions, airports play C-SPAN2 and bars show C-SPAN, implausible subtextual-screaming ambience for otherwise uninflected one-on-one conversations masquerading as slow-boiling crime drama. (The counterfactual landscape is grating: layering audio of W., McCain and Obama directly over transitional scenes without bothering about diagetic plausibility would have been bolder—and less distracting.)
Minor crime lord Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) conceives of a card game heist. His chosen executor is Frankie (Scott McNairy); the wild card is Frankie’s partner Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), an Australian junkie. That nationality isn’t in the George V. Higgins source novel: Russell is Dominik’s jokey alter-ego, a scuzzy commodity dismissed by a contemptuous boss (“I can get Australians for 80 cents a dozen”), a mocking reference to his unemployability after Jesse James.
The heist is one of the year’s most suspenseful, with the aural threat of sudden sawed-off gunfire looming over unstably silent, nervously prolonged master shots. Dominik asserts himself stylistically throughout, alternately enjoyably—a drive-by assassination in NFL Films super-slow motion, spending 30 seconds alone on a bullet’s exit from a chamber—and tiresomely, as when Frankie and Russell shoot up and the former tries to get some answers: the widescreen frame irises or fades out seemingly a dozen times to simulate the latter’s stupor (to the strains of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” not even the most heavy-handed of the soundtrack cues). Frankie’s on the verge of smacking Russell out of his nodding off, and I wish he would.
Enforcer Brad Pitt (as “Jackie Cogan” but also as himself, the charismatic center of attention) is brought in to sort out the mess after Frankie and Russell rob a card game. There’s little carnage, just a lot of conversation: as in Higgins’s book (from which
the overwhelming dialogue’s been judiciously condensed), violence forms tiny ellipses between vernacular two-and three-man conversations. Most are hammily enjoyable (especially those with James Gandolfini as an aging, hooker-fixated, booze-addled hitman).
Higgins’s own narrative is supplanted by heavy-handed invocations of the ever-popular, would-be sardonic analogies between putatively legitimate capitalism and its organized-crime counterparts. Setting the price of an imported hitman’s wage, Cogan argues, “in this economy I think a quick 15 for two days’ work is pretty good.” The heist is mirrored by reports on credit overextension, two candidates’ fever-pitch hyperbole failing to propose real regulatory reform, and announcements of bail-out packages from President Bush. At the climax, Cogan delivers the thesis loud and clear, in the event it somehow hasn’t been conveyed strongly enough. “America is not a country, it’s a business,” he fumes as Obama invokes “community” on the TV. The message is hard to argue with, but the 60th iteration of this theme is as rote as the first.
Opens November 30