Friday, December 21, 2012

Hit Me Baby

So which is the real Killing Them Softly? One is the film that competed for the Cannes Palm D'Or this past spring, and received decent reviews overall, to the tune of 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was supposed to secure star Brad Pitt a Best Actor nomination and steal a lot of attention from bigger blockbuster titles during the awards season. The second film is one reviled by audience-goers, given a rare "F" rating on Cinemascore and bombing badly when it was released almost three weeks ago. That's a fairly wide gulf, and while critics and audiences have certainly disagreed on what makes for quality movie time (just look at any Twilight flick), rarely do their opinions appear so disparate when it comes to a potential Oscar darling. So which one is the film you should expect if you go to the theaters?

Frankly, I'm shocked that so many critics could get past the frenetic opening credits sequence to really get into the film based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade. The jagged and frankly pointless opening sequence sets a tone that resonates through the entire film. As to the story, it focuses on the effect of two amateur goons (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knocking over an underground card game, and the mob hitman (Brad Pitt) who is hired to find and make an example of them. The tale is set to the background of the 2008 Presidential election and the financial crisis that defined both that year and election, and as we see, not even the criminal underground is safe from the recession.

You just know it won't end well for these guys.

Actually, looking at the recession's effect on even criminal markets was a fascinating take on the subject, and in all honesty it's likely the main reason so much critical affection was given to this title. Every character has stories of falls from grace, for instance James Gandolfini as a hitman whose depression has spiraled into passions for booze and prostitutes. The economy is such that probation systems cannot help many reformed criminals, so that those men are forced back into the game to survive. Mob bosses are forced to work together by committee rather than risk alienation by carving their own path, and assassins must offer discounts to remain competitive. It's a unique take on the typical crime drama, and changes the rules and politics of the mob system. The violence is also stylish, with director Andrew Dominik taking the extra effort and making each hit feel like a visceral, important and rare occurrence.

Richard Jenkins is always good, no question.
Unfortunately, while Dominik has a flair for the visual, he rarely indulges it in film chock full of talk, questions, pondering and tons and tons of plot exposition. 100% of often-excellent performer Richard Jenkins' scenes take place with him sitting down and not doing a whole hell of a lot. The cast is full of talented performers but Pitt, Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Sam Shepard are largely wasted on explaining basic concepts to both one another and the audience. Pitt especially feels pointless, spending most of his time talking instead of actually doing anything of interest. Only Mendelsohn and - most especially - McNairy stand out acting-wise, with Mendelsohn playing nicely as a grubby do-anything character with little-to-no morals and a penchant for disaster. But while his partner is amusing at best, McNairy actually manages to achieve the rare feat in this picture of being someone to root for. As the young Frankie he is forced into a corner as both a character and actor, and McNairy impresses with ample charm and talent. It's a shame most people won't see him in this, as he won't likely get recognition from the his excellent work on Argo, which saw him take on a much different appearance.

Could it possibly be a crime movie without this guy?
While I get why Killing Them Softly has received some positive press, I feel that this was a case in which a movie was overrated thanks to the quality of its cast and a few good moments than for being the powerful, allegorical tale that it was surely meant to be. It's certainly making up for that now, and might be remembered as among the year's worst. Killing Them Softly gets a few things right and doesn't skimp on the blood, but the rest of Dominik's work is a boring, trite and completely unsubtle waste of an hour and a half. Skip at all costs.

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