Saturday, March 30, 2013

In short: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a small-time criminal, has a plan for his even smaller-time acquaintance Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Frankie's junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn): the two are supposed to raid an illegal gambling room belonging to the local mob. Usually, this sort of thing has lethal repercussions, but Squirrel has it all figured out. This particular game is held by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Markie had already hired people to raid one of his own games in the past, so, Squirrel thinks, he'll be the guy the mob will make responsible, leaving his friends and especially his planning hand untouched and unknown.

Not surprisingly, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), the fixer the mob calls in to mete out appropriate punishments, does not fall for that particular trick: Markie surely couldn't be that stupid. Not that it matters much. A business has to uphold appearances, so Markie has to die even though Jackie knows he's innocent. Frankie and Russell, on the other hand, could actually get away scot free if not for Russell's loose tongue. Clearly, things won't end too well for anybody except Jackie.

Andrew Dominik's adaptation of a George V. Higgins novel, on the other hand, is the good stuff, at least if you like your hardboiled crime movies laconic, grim, with an underlying sneer towards the American Dream yet also a sense of compassion. Not that this compassion saves even a single one of the characters here: Late capitalist America is not the kind of place where compassion plays an active role in anything anymore, no matter what the politicians on TV might say about ideals (and as we all know, ideals that aren't followed by actions are worse than no ideals at all).

It's really rather fascinating to see how alive the old tropes of this sort of thing can still feel in the hands of a director and writer who knows how to make them sing without having to use grand gestures or letting his cast do all-caps ACTING. It's not that kind of gangster movie, but one that concerns itself with the losers, the lost, and the people at the bottom of the criminal food chain, so all grandstanding would be completely out of place.

Instead, direction and performances go for nuance, a sad somewhat bitter humour, and dialogue that is intensely stylized to take on the appearance of naturalism. One could accuse Killing Them Softly of silently wallowing in the sordid. The lack of glamour, however, is rather the point of the whole affair, with characters whose lives don't so much fall apart - there hasn't been much whole about anyone's life here for a long time - but just end the same way they have always been.

Killing Them Softly is a fantastic piece of work, with a director and an ensemble cast (there are also James Gandolfini as depressed killer and Sam Shepard as mob councillor to mention) that completely disappears inside the material.

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