Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Killing Them Softly; the kind of movie which gets men a bad name

The day after, the thing which sticks with me is that Killing Them Softly has exactly one female speaking part, and it's a hooker who doesn't get a tip. Or a name. Killing Them Softly fails the Bechdel test so hard it practically rips a hole in reality in a hunt for a number below all previous concepts of zero, but in one sense, it's the nicest thing it could have done for women. All the men in the movie are so consistently horrible that no-one could blame women for not wanting to join them - except that these men would mope and whine about that for the whole movie as yet another example of what bitches women are.

In a move which would probably count as brave if he still had to give a damn what anyone thinks of him, Brad Pitt plays the main asshole as an asshole, and still looks like less of an asshole than literally everyone else on the screen. Apparently made as a satire on US values, Killing Them Softly plays better as a cry for help to the space aliens around us, specifically a 90 minute plea for them to come and put us out of our misery. If the planet gets disintegrated by cosmic rays any time soon, I'm blaming Brad Pitt, assuming that disintegration is slow enough to give me some time to think about whose fault it might be. Also playing assholes; Richard Jenkins as a crooked lawyer who wants to think he's just a business man; James Gandolfini as a hit man trying to make murder the least unattractive facet of his personality, Ray Liotta as a guy who's gotta get got, and arguably shoulda got got long before the movie opened, and a whole bunch of actors as a bunch of guys clogging the lint filter on the gene pool. 

In a weird way Killing Them Softly is the antidote to all those Tarantino-esque crime movies about cool criminals who talk too much. There's been a lot of justified criticism about crime movies which glamourise crime (to all of which, I echo Godard; they're movies; they're trying to make everything look glamorous), but it turns out that a movie which sets out to do the opposite is a whole bunch of no damned fun at all. Even when it's well acted and well written, a movie has to pass the beer test; "Is there anyone in this whole mess who I'd have a beer with?" For Killing Them Softly the answer is "Only if I knew they had a fatal allergy to beer."

I sound cranky about this, and I'll admit to that. I wanted to like this film, even though it had Brad Pitt [1] in it. It's adapted from a book by George V Higgins, Cogan's Trade, albeit one from his early period before he realised that completely naturalistic dialogue is completely unreadable dialogue. In his later work, Higgins hit the sweet spot between what people actually sound like and what they want to think they sound like, and could run entire books in direct and indirect speech, the narrative unfolding as characters telling stories about other characters, every voice articulate and distinctive, somehow suggesting real speech without all the umms and errs which make real speech seem ludicrous on the page. But even the early stuff, precisely because it's so dominated by dialogue, ought to be movie gold, so I was pretty optimistic.

Well, that did not go according to plan. It's a very faithful adaptation of the book (which too late I remembered I'd never been able to finish because everyone on the page was a dick), and it's weirdly faithful to the book's time; I don't think you ever see a computer or a cell phone in frame. The book was published in 1974, and the movie could quite easily have been shot there as well; the locations are down at heel and grubby and timeless, and the cars are big old American barges that could have been in the background of any episode of Starsky and Hutch. Yet it's stubbornly anchored into November 2008 by the constant use of snippets from the dying days of the Lesser Bush Presidency and the Obama campaign. 

Which is, I think, a big part of the problem. Cogan's Trade was a grubby little book about grubby little people holding up a card game and getting got for their troubles. Killing Them Softly wanted to be an issues movie, so they explicitly, anviliciously, mirror the low-rent criminals and their money worries off against the high toned posturing of the politicians talking about the US financial crisis. Again and again Jackie explains that people need to get got so that confidence can be restored on the street on and the money can start to flow again. Just in case anyone failed to pick up on that, the movie ends on Jackie ranting about how the USA is not a country but a business. I've had subtler tax demands. The whole point of the underlying work is that these are unimportant people, doing terrible things for trivial reasons, and here come Brad and his production company (Plan B, though I was hoping it was 1984 Private Defence Contractors, the most pompous wannabe hip company name I've seen in years) wanting their work to be all important like.

If your work is mirroring reality well, you don't need to spell it out. Higgins knew that.

[1] I think I've hated Brad Pitt in every movie I've ever seen him in, even if I actually liked the movie itself, including Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club.

No comments: