Cannes Film Festival
A year after “Drive” took the Croisette by storm with what I saw to be an empty promise of genre revitalization, Andrew Dominik arrives with “Killing Them Softly,” a movie is the real deal for action fans. A whip-smart heist flick, Dominik seems to be channeling Stanley Kubrick with his aestheticized violence, hauntingly ironic music usage, and an emotional detachment. His film politicizes and stylizes the mob and the heist film, delivering a deliriously gory kick in the head.
The more I think about the film, the more I realize how it shouldn’t work. The character development, save James Gandolfini as a sleazy aging and boozing hitman, is minimal. The plot is familiar. The plot unfolds with relative predictability. Come on, it’s a mob movie – if you don’t know that almost everyone is gong to wind up dead, then you have some serious Scorsese to watch before you are allowed to come anywhere near “Killing Them Softly.”
But perhaps Nanni Moretti, president of the Cannes jury this year, holds the key to understanding why the movie transcends so many of its obvious shortcomings. He made an off-the-cuff observation that among the competition directors this year, many “seemed more in love with their style than their character[s].” While this could have applied to any number of directors I saw at Cannes (Wes Anderson, Carlos Reygadas, David Cronenberg), it seems particularly directed at Andrew Dominik. But while Moretti meant his remark to be construed as a negative, the style of “Killing Them Softly” is so abundant that it becomes a character in and of itself, taking the place of traditional “substance.”
I can imagine that many will see the film and find Andrew Dominik’s heavy-handed direction akin to dealing with a petulant child clamoring for attention. (To be fair, when you are involved with a Brad Pitt film, it’s pretty easy to fade into nothingness.) Dominik is the film’s real star, nimbly fusing artistic brushstrokes of cinematic virtuoso with a ruckus sense of fun usually reserved for blowing up buildings. Whether it’s extending a simple scene of heroin usage to make us feel like we’ve begin to overdose as well or devising some wickedly beautiful death scenes, his gallery walk is full of triumphantly emphatic moments all strung together to create a remarkably cohesive cinematic sentence.
And Dominik, who also adapted the film from the novel “Cogan’s Trade” (the original title of “Killing Them Softly”), steers the film mightily towards a very peculiar course – one that I definitely was not expecting. “Killing Them Softly” may open up a new chapter in post-recessional cinema, one which shows that cynicism and mistrust of people in power has become so deeply rooted in society that it pervades genre filmmaking, not just movies about unemployment or economic woes. Dominik’s film, not unlike the fantastic documentary “Inside Job,” skewers both political parties for ignorance and negligence, reminding us that our current mess is so grave that it should not be exploited for political gain.
But perhaps the overarching contribution of “Killing Them Softly” will hit hardest upon release in September, ringing the death knell for Obama’s “hope” and “change” promise, proclaiming it to be nothing more than naive campaign rhetoric. However, like I said, this is hardly a partisan film, and its clever use of juxtaposition of the political and the criminal alludes to the common destiny of our country more than it does to one party. Regardless of red or blue, the film will kick out all your teeth with its closing line (which I dare not spoil) that is destined to end up in the pop culture jargon and future AFI top 100 lists. Dominik builds the entire movie towards the final line, and all the moments of confusion with verbose dialogue and molasses-slow plot development are rendered irrelevant in the face of the killer conclusion and its ferocious intensity. B+ /