“Film Noir done properly…” – Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.
Why didn’t the chicken cross the road? Because he was dead. Ha ha ha ha ha Brilliant! Or wait, not brilliant. That’s a shit joke. And why?
Well because the punchline is rubbish. The set up is fairly standard, it’s passable, it’s fine – but the the punchline is absolute shit. That’s how I feel about most thrillers to be honest. For every ten great first hours or so of celluloid out there, there are at least seven third acts which just fall apart and leave a bad taste in your mouth rendering all the good work of the first hour pointless. Yes Marty I’m talking to you here. Shutter Island had some great bits in the first hour and then what happened Marty? Why the sudden outbreak of absolute ridiculousness?
Well the joke above is a pretty good example of why, for me, this happens so often. See you can add to the set up of a joke, you can enrich it and enliven it with wild imagination – it doesn’t have to be a chicken – it can be a six foot tall, pedophiliac one legged donkey/chicken cross breed with a cannon for a leg. It can be about to cross a six lane mega freeway of ten tonne trucks driven by the entire drunken population of Kerry on a Saturday night, lead by a robo-fascist Jackie Healy Rae. That’s fine. Watch The Aristocrats for perfect example of what actual comics do to embellish the set up of a single joke. In a thriller the same thing happens really. Take a simple story and embellish it with interesting characters, witty dialogue, some insight, personal drama, a character study, even social commentary. That first hour is wide open do what you want.
The second hour or half an hour, the third act lets say, is the hard part – that’s where filmmakers make their name. This is where there has to be some restraint and singularity of purpose. There has to be a punchline. It has to be delivered properly, to the point. You know – punchy. This is where you get laughs, this is where the thrills are. In great thrillers (as in great jokes) you don’t see the changing of gears, you don’t see the act breaks so to speak. Bang and the film is into the endgame without you even noticing that time had passed. Pacing is vital here. Ramp up the pace at the end of a slow burner and the audience gets lost, the nuances that are there in the first hour disappear and the quality drops. Too slow and you can start to make predictions or just lose interest. This is why people with drawl monotone voices can tell only one type of joke while people from Cork or Limerick usually bombard you with absolute filth until your sides are sore – it’s either that or you’ve been stabbed (wheyey!!! Dublin humour!!). If it’s a great joke you’re coughing into your pint and spilling it on your crotch. If it’s a truly great thriller you were too busy balancing on the edge of your seat to think about time or structure or popcorn or the loud couple beside you munching their way through a bag of what sounds like styrofoam and marbles. You’re out in the lobby before you know it, carrying your half finished popcorn and thinking “jesus, I barely touched this and it was €4 for fuck sake. I’ll eat it on the bus”. By then it’s a cold hardened cheesy buttery-based mess, and that cheese or butter or whatever chemical they put on it is starting to taste like what you’d imagine Michael Bays dick tastes like. So you just throw it into the Liffey and swear never to buy that shite again. That’s the mark of a great thriller.
The other problem thrillers encounter and, in fact, all films (but especially thrillers) is that what works in a novel does not always work when played out on screen. A thrilling novel doesn’t have the burden of running time and condensed pacing dilemmas. In fact it can wilfully do the opposite altogether – the longer your thriller novel goes on the more detailed, the more likely it is to suck in the reader and keep them engrossed to the end. Take John LeCarres Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener for example. That’s over 1000 pages reduced to two, two hour movies – both of which fly along at a staggering pace and really feel like condensed versions of sprawling stories. Of course the same set up and punchline aspect exists. Sure, film makers can tinker with the subject matter of the first 400 pages: certain characters get cut entirely; others are vital parts of the film but barely exist in the book; the tone can be changed — the whole nine yards, but you’re really stuck with the ending. Shutter Island for example was stuck with an ending that ten years ago would have been a surprise, but M Night Shalamamamalllamamalam has made that kind of thing seem cliched and as a result all that good work Scorsese puts in falls around his ankles in the finale. With that in mind, I went and watched Killing Them Softly, a thriller based on a novel called Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins.
Firstly I haven’t read Cogan’s Trade but from a quick internet search I’m told that the novel is set in the seventies. Killing Them Softly, of course, is not. It is the America of four years ago during the presidential election race between Barack Obama and the other guy who, let’s face it, doesn’t fucking matter now. The film is set in a city which remains unnamed but has the down trodden destroyed look of post hurricane Katrina New Orleans. But then again, from it’s appearance, it could easily be Detroit or any other part of the states that was destroyed, not by natural disaster, but by the laissez faire politics of successive governments who seem to believe that the government that governs best governs least for the poor, the working class and the desperate and leans with an unashamed bias towards the upper echelons of society in the vain hope that society will bizarrely go against the history of the last thousands of years and somehow money will start trickling down from the top and fill the pockets and by extension the stomaches of the lower classes (I promise I won’t rant too much here). At it’s core Killing Them Softly is an angry but philosophical film which draws a direct link between the actions of the criminal underclass and the actions of those at the top. The presidential election (and how the politicians at large speak about the economy) plays out in the background – but it is ever present and is an important tool in placing the action in a time of desperation, flux and decay. Sure an economy is not the be all and end all of a society but it does have a huge role in shaping how the society moves forward and evolves. Here the small time crooks and their small economy is in a parallel state of flux to that of the wider world. As such, these crooks’ actions are governed by the same sense of fear that the wider world feels. This is clever film making by a very astute filmmaker. This is the America of aftermath, of economic slide and of post 9/11 fears. It centres on the desperate and often misguided acts of desperate people. Yes, this is dark in tone and content, it’s unflinching, violent and oppressing. As constant as the empty rhetoric of the TV presidential debates is the sense of foreboding. Film Noir done properly and yet, unlike many films with the same bleak sensibilities, this remains consistently highly entertaining.
Director Andrew Dominik and Cinematographer Grieg Fraser will probably never make a better looking film in their whole careers. This is saying something as Dominik’s back-catalogue includes Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, both of which are excellent movies and beautiful to look at. The Jesse James one in particular. The bleached colour palette, the short depth of focus and the high detail maintain a wonderfully ominous tone throughout. The film is a feast for the eyes, and in one instance there is probably the best digital set piece of the decade so far (take note Michael Bay. You cunt). Even when the images Dominik serves up are violent and unpleasant they are undeniably beautiful to look at. The cast are also on top form, Scoot Nairy and Ben Mendelsohn are perfect as two down-at-the-heels loser criminals who, from the very get go, are destined to fuck up somehow. Ray Liotta is also perfect as a mid-level criminal type card shark. Vincent Curatola – Johnny Sack from The Sopranos – also turns in a nice, though brief, performance as another mid-level criminal, in this instance as the “mastermind” (I use the term loosely) behind a robbery. The real acting honours (apart from Mendelsohn and Nairy who, like I said, are perfect), are shared among James Gandolfini as a whore-banging alcoholic hit-man, Richard Jenkins as a go between for the upper levels of the mob and Brad Pitt who is single handedly holding all the strands of the story together and gives a brilliant performance at the films core. In fact, the scenes between Pitt and Jenkins are some of the best scenes you’ll see all year. It’s brilliantly shot, it’s funny, entertaining, engaging and perfectly performed. It’s first hour is as good as anything you’ll see this or any year and in its gritty pitch dark tone and precision execution it has more than enough to make it stay with you on the bus home.
That said, it is flawed. In spite of the brilliance of Gandolfini and Pitt the scenes between the two don’t really go anywhere and while they’re great to watch they seem to derail the film slightly. The presidential election in the background trick gets old by the second half and when the film reaches it’s conclusion I felt slightly cheated, as though I’d already come to the conclusion by myself some time back – before the film makes it’s point all too explicitly. The film suffers too from that “brilliant set up poor punchline” problem. Though never poor enough to say any second of the film is bad (it isn’t – it’s excellent), the finale never reaches the highs of the first hour and offers up an opportunity for you to finish your popcorn before you get to the exit. That said the highs of the first hour are worth the admission price alone. In short, a flawed masterpiece to add to director Dominik’s already masterpiece laden catalog. Definitely worth seeing.