So the day finally arrived, and I was up early to see Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. First impression: it has a killer cast. Literally and figuratively. Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini appear as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations. Brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of my Best Film of 2010, Animal Kingdom) plays a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; Scoot McNairy (hero of the low-budget indie hit Monsters, and here making his I’ve-hit-the-big-time feature film debut and doing a bloody good job of looking confident among the coolios) takes on the Casey Affleck role of a kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who proves he has plenty more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.
And of course, there’s Brad. And say what you like about his celebrity and his many children and his equally famous fiancee and his parties with George and his dashing goatee – Brad is a terrific actor who takes on terrific roles and delivers every time. And he is terrific here, as Jackie Cogan.
The story is basically a slightly-tweaked rendition of one we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, doing what Needs To Be Done, and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing. Director and “writer for the screen” Dominik (I’ve previously made bones about his being born in NZ, but the press conference proved not only that he sounds like an Aussie and self-identifies as an Aussie, but I wouldn’t want to claim his arrogant ass as a Kiwi any more) has adapted the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” and moved it forward several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as President. The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis (with understandable focus on America) with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay-cut in these difficult fiscal times. Parts of it are beautifully framed and shot (consistent with Dominik’s second, gorgeous film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which he cast Pitt as the legendary outlaw); there are interesting characters, all of whom are well portrayed by their weighty actors (Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get emotional about the operation of his job); and there are some fantastic moments in the script, reminiscent of early Tarantino in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of bad-ass concerns.
The script, ironically, is also one of the film’s potential problems. Like Tarantino, Dominik obviously loves the sound of his own dialogue, and clearly failed to take a scalpel into the editing room. While what they’re saying is amusing, diverting, and (even if not always plot-advancing), certainly insightful, the long talky scenes mess with the pacing of a film that really needs to stop talking about people, and just get on with disposing of their problems. There is some shameless short-cutting of key narrative moments (people dealt with off camera, including one key character who never materialises for the whole film). And, glaringly, not a single female character of any note. Indeed, for most of the film there isn’t a single female character, period, but rest assured – later on there is a hooker. All the other imagined women are discussed in purely misogynistic terms, so perhaps we have been done a service by there not being a thankless love-interest to be bashed around or to provide the redemptive moments.
So all in all, it was disappointing – my “film du Cannes!” was not all that. It’s a good film, enjoyable, excessively violent (again, think Ryan Gosling in a lift and play that over and over for sense…) and there are some great performances. But it’s also totally derivative, unevenly paced and a bit long-winded. I will be very interested to see how it is received globally, by film festival audiences and Joe Public, but I don’t believe it justifies an “In Competition” moment, and there’s no way it will win. Sadly, I don’t even think Ben’s crazed druggie will take a Best Supporting Actor gong.
To add insult to injury, the press conference was terribly disappointing. I had to watch on a TV outside the room (blue badges don’t often make it into the hallowed halls of the PC) and could be seen shaking my head in disgust as question after question was directed at “Mr Pitt”, about the violence in the film (“You have children; is it hard for you to kill people in a film?”), his character’s deeper motivation (It’s there on the page! and on the screen! it isn’t more complicated than what we see!) and whether he and Angelina have set a date for their wedding (No, but they definitely plan to marry, as soon as America makes it legal for everyone to marry). Dominik stepped in to help answer most of the questions, particularly the ones requiring a justification for the violence (citing Grimms Fairytales while scarcely managing to contain his hair-flicking disdain for the journalists). Had I been inside the actual press conference, I would have congratulated Scoot and Ben on their previous excellent films and their great work in this one, then spoken up about the lack-of-women thing and asked whether the Writer for the Screen couldn’t have transposed one of the male characters into a Felicia Pearson-type scary broad? But I wasn’t, so there were instead more questions about Brad-this and Brad-that. Actually, I have enormous respect for the man – he was endlessly patient and gracious, and I saw a similar grace and energy from him outside on the red carpet at last night’s premiere, where he made time to sign autographs and work the crowd, no doubt making a lot of days. But I honestly wanted to run up and apologise for the journalists’ dumb questions in the conference.
So that was Killing Them Softly. Ironically, the picture I saw later in the day dealt with killing in a whole other fashion, and provided a much more heartfelt and devastating experience. I’ll look out for Dominik’s next film, of course, and if he casts it as excitingly as this one, it will be one to anticipate (I give people endless chances). But this one didn’t kill me, just left me a bit cold.