J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Killing Them Softly: Beating Them Over the Head with “the Message”


Sometimes even criminals need a bailout.  Of course, they can always help themselves to an involuntary one.  That is what crime and government are all about.  Yet, somehow Andrew Dominik turns a modest heist caper into a didactic statement on political economy in the frustrating lost opportunity titled Killing Them Softly (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Killing reminds viewers how annoying it is to have to listen to CNN in an airport concourse.  Say what you will about Tarantino, but at least his gangsters listen to vintage soul music.  It is news radio all the way for Dominik’s low life thugs.  At almost every point of Killing news reports of the 2007 financial crisis and Obama’s campaign speeches blare down on viewers like Big Brother in Oceania.  The economy was bad.  We get it, thank you.  Here’s a newsflash—it’s still stalled.

Against this omnipresent backdrop, Frankie recruits his dog-napping buddy Russell to pull off a risky score.  They are going to hold-up the mob-protected card game run by Markie Trattman.  Ordinarily, knocking over a connected game is a losing proposition, but in this case someone else will automatically be blamed: Trattman.  A while back, he conspired to take down his own game and blabbed about it afterward.  Everyone likes Trattman, so they let it slide, once, but if it happens again things are sure to get ugly.

At first, everything seems to be going according to plan.  Then fixer Jackie Cogan is called in to investigate.  He intuitively knows Trattman has been set-up, but he does not have much sympathy for the man.  Frankly, sentiment really is not his thing, not even for an old past-his-prime hitman chum he mistakenly brings in to help clean up the job.

You can see why Brad Pitt is a movie star in Killing.  Even when chewing on over-the-top “America is a corporation not a community” dialogue that would make The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns snicker, he is an electric presence.  For the most part, his scenes with Richard Jenkins’ Driver, the exasperated counselor to the mob’s corporate governing committee, are smartly written and bitingly witty.  However, Dominik plays out his crime as a metaphor for capitalism well past the breaking point.

Yet, when you strip away Killing’s layers of ostensive “relevance,” one is left with a fairly routine crime drama.  A score goes down and several people involved, one way or another, are subsequently dispatched, but it is difficult to care much about their fates.  After all Dominik scrupulously establishes the lack of innocence in this world.  Still, Ray Liotta has his moments as the tragic Trattman, a self-defeating figure like so many of Killing’s characters.

There is no meaningful takeaway from Killing, because its premise is faulty.  The mob is not like a corporation, it is like a government that can take what it wants and change the rules at its convenience.  Dominik’s adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel gives viewers a few clever lines and a couple of colorful scenes, but that is about the extent of it.  A real disappointment, Killing Them Softly is not recommended when it opens today (11/30) in New York at the AMC Kips Bay and Regal Union Square.

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