Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Some Notes on Reading Political Discourse in Killing Them Softly

They tried to get her last night.”
They? A wonderful word. And who are they
They're the nameless ones who kill people.”
-Kiss Me Deadly

“Everything is politics”
-Thomas Mann

            The easy reading of Killing Them Softly—the one it seems that every critic I’ve read seems to want to make—is that the film boldly and stupidly compares capitalism and crime in the most invasive and obvious way possible. Certainly, with a scene where Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins silently sit for a minute while driving to listen to now former President Bush explain the importance of the bailout, it might seems at times that writer-director Andrew Dominik is making simply a series 1-to-1 political comparisons: Brad is the economic stimulus package! The gamblers are the too cautious senate! America is a business built on violence!

            Excuse me for not buying the text. Dominik is, after all, the director who gave us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a grand opus about the closing of the American West, its mythic symbols as portents of death. To assume that Dominik thought it would be a smart choice to reduce politics into blatant metaphors is to assume a lack of intelligence on the director, an easy job it seems for a number of critics all too excited to place themselves above Dominik. I mean if it’s so obviously a stupid idea, why do it? 

So hear me out: the actual content of politics we see and here in Killing Them Softly is less important than their placement within the narrative in the first place and their delivery of content. Just watch that opening credit speech, as Obama’s speech can’t help but jarringly force itself onto the film proper. Or is it the other way around—has film become political, or the political become film? 

            Classic film noir is often defined as a genre that never could tackle politics on its surface. It was reduced to visual codes and systems, metaphors of hot coffee as signs of political and social trauma. All this made noir one of the most potent genres of its time, so much that every filmmaker now tries to rip off the genre, usually in a way that forgets its essential syntax. Killing Me Softly does not. In many ways, it is the political fulfillment of film noir. The speeches of bailouts and the promises of America are not just devices as metaphors, but metaphors as metaphors. The system is now inescapable. If anything, Dominik underused the tactic, but it pays off in the final scene where Pitt and Jenkins must acknowledged their own relationship to the political—it literally breaks its way into what was once the pure diegesis of the film. Even in the most barren and depraved society (Patricia Norris has created one of the ugliest worlds on screen since her work with David Lynch), every action cannot escape a political reading. This film isn’t asking us to compare the political to the crime world—movies have been doing that for decades—it’s asking us to ask what isn’t political these days? Pitt’s final speech in the film is less of a revelation than a cold hard joke. He invokes the most blatant of metaphors, because he can. In society, all rhetoric is reduced to politics.

            Killing Them Softly also has a narrative on its own that it must tell—one that deals in hard strokes and barren bits, none of it too pretty. Having not seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle nor having read George V. Higgins’s Coogan’s Trade, I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I can speak to what we have on screen. Dominick, it seems, is interested in the opposite of Mamet, who always tells writers to get in and out of a scene as fast as you can. Consider a scene where Gandolfini and Pitt have a long conversation at a hotel restaurant. The scene lasts about ten minutes, where Gandolfini tells a long story about prison and his relationship to his wife. The actual exposition—the god damn point of the scene—is literally left for the last fifteen seconds. So the question is what do we gain from a scene like that? Besides just letting us indulge in an over-indulgent Gandolfini performance (he is truly the bloated beast of the capital monster, unaware of how much he has inhaled), Dominik reveals the insecurity, the risk, and just how much Pitt’s character is about listening. This is the opposite we see in those Pitt and Jenkins sequences, where all they talk is method and process, the annoying bureaucratic steps they must take to clean up this ugly mess. Instead, Gandolfini can never focus on what’s at stake. This kind of scene works mostly for Dominik (one earlier in the film with two low life criminals going in and out of consciousness, sadly, does not), as he turns our desire for a crime film inside out. 

            Add to that the film’s extremely aestheticized violence. Besides a clever tracking shot near the opening of the film, no one throws a punch or uses a bullet for almost forty minutes. And then we get a brutal, night-set beating, none of it too pretty. Dominik and his DP Grieg Fraiser (whose work here, on film no less, is simply stunning) makes it over-the-top brutal, but not in a way where we can disassociate from the violence in its comicality (see: Django Unchained). It is not easy to watch. Then again, I’m not sure why it needs to be so rough and bold. Killing Them Softly  seems to be working a few different angles at once, and its violence, particularly in a slow motion bullet set to a 50s pop song (an ironic gesture that has lost its irony), is the one that actually feels a little too calculated, much more than its political discourse. The scenes hit hard, but what do they translate in terms of this world besides utter brutality? The problem is that it too much feels like aesthetics for aesthetics sake. This is in fact the much more slippery metaphor in Dominik’s film, which is perhaps why the standout sequence is the robbery, which is so precisely and intimately shot with such sustained tension that is the type you really want taught in film school. It’s slow, merciless, and edited on its own unique rhythm, and creates a feeling of horror without a single bullet going out. 

            One last note: Scoot McNairy? Where did this man come from? Has any other actor so literally embodied a rat? His voice and jitters are a delight to watch, moving in a way that traps us in his predicament. In the film’s best sequence, Pitt confronts McNairy at a bar. We’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but not with Pitt’s in-and-out, almost mechanical persona and McNairy’s tortured soul. You can feel McNairy is ready to jump out of his body at any moment, leaving a dead carcass behind. He’s the soul of this film—a shit man doing shit business in a shit world.

Love to hear feedback in the comments on any of my thoughts.


Danny King said...

Love the idea that the film's insistent political agenda is actually a way of freeing up the noir genre -- it's probably the best, and most historically potent, defense I've read regarding the film's politicization.

And I, too, was quite taken with the robbery sequence, the way it tracks these guys through the alleys, puts us in their wet, muddy shoes, letting us feel the physical pain and discomfort of their profession. I admire the film for sticking so thoroughly with these beaten-down, mid-level hoods -- "rats," as you say.

I highly recommend checking out "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" -- it's a more straight-laced adaptation of Higgins (i.e., there's no political commentary), but it's perhaps all the more valuable for it. (It's far more emotional, for me, on a character level -- Robert Mitchum is quietly devastating.) It's really worth seeing "Coyle" in tandem with "Killing Them Softly," because they both speak to two different ways to adapt a particular author.

Peter Labuza said...

Thanks Danny! I've been seriously trying to see "Eddie Coyle" for years, but I keep trying to hold out for a 35mm. Sadly missed it at MoMI this summer due to a vacation. Hope to see it too, as I'd probably say Mitchum is my favorite actor period.

Michael Loren Siegel said...

Nice to see a review of KTS that doesn't take the political message so literally. But, still, there seems to be a sense in which you really want things to cohere into a political meaning here (hence your "this is just art for art's sake" jab), when the point seems precisely about the inability of mythic, generic structures to accommodate politics when politics itself is unabashedly inseparable from global finance capital. The mysterious and unrepresentable links between capital and culture are what this film puts into play (and what, in turn, determine the film's aesthetics). It's uncanny how many critics wanted to see the political speeches and decision to launch the bank bail-out as a metaphor for the diegetic goings-on, when they clearly and in every instance in which they come up tell us precisely nothing about the characters, the events, etc. It's just so much meaningless, off-screen chatter.

I see it, in other words, almost as a kind of Godardian, counter-cinema technique, one that serves not to seal the diegesis, but to open it, to unhinge it a little bit. Your comparison to classic noir is spot on, but I just think this film takes that deconstructive impulse to its logical endpoint by maintaining a general mood/ethos of noir without allowing noir's sometimes facile politics. Here, rather, we are always left waiting for the film to tell us what it is trying to say (and I think several scenes are structured around a temporality of waiting for this very reason). I love your point about Dominik's other, almost late Fordian film and its systematic foreclosure of the Western's mythic structures. Perhaps this is precisely what's going on here around noir and American urban mythology -- and no wonder the film is set in New Orleans, a city that now, since Katrina, records the ultimate failure (or maybe just the logic) of the American urban project.

Peter Labuza said...

All unique and valid points, Michael. I totally agree, and was just in an email conversation about how all the discussions between Pitt and Jenkins turn inevitably into political rhetoric ("what will the public response be?"). The more I think about it, it's less the relation than the translation of rhetoric to this event. But there are some 1-to-1 parallels being made as well (see the "forced" choice that McNairy is forced to make). There's also a bit of the problem is that none of these characters do have inner lives, so I think the film forces you to try and make those connections. But thanks for your response.

Matthew Dessem said...

I haven't completely thought this out yet, but I saw the politics in this a little differently. I agree that part of what's going on is politics invading everything, but I don't think the audience was being invited to make the facile comparison between capitalism and crime so much as being reminded that the criminals themselves bought into that myth in a big way, without really understanding the implications. (They "believe in America.") That's why the comparisons are so on-the-nose and, except for the very end (when the point is Coogan calling bullshit), they're front-loaded toward the beginning of the film, when the Richard Jenkins character is still able to pretend he's making business decisions. (And New York Mickey has someone to reminisce about women with, and Scoot's friends are worried about him.) They're not the metaphors we would make, but they're definitely the ones Jenkins would.

It's like what Jim Shepherd wrote about Goodfellas -- the film is littered with the corpses of people who thought they were in a movie called The Godfather. Except in Goodfellas, everybody thinks they're in The Godfather, at least in the beginning, but the whole point of Coogan is that he lets other people hang on to their myths when it suits him. (And that's what I see in the contrast between his scenes with Jenkins & Gandolfini -- one man wants to think he's making tough, pragmatic choices, the other wants to think he has loyal friends. Coogan, as far as I can tell, just wants his money.)

So I saw it as more of a "make sure you understand what you're asking for" thing. Which matches, I think, some of the repeated scenes where people get more than they wanted. Tell New York Mickey it's a party and he'll show up and spend three days drunk with hookers. Want a sawed-off shotgun? Here's one where the shells hang out of the end of the barrel. Want to think of yourself as a capitalist? Fine, you're a capitalist. But now you don't get to talk about being in a "business of relationships."

And this extends, I think, to the film's aesthetics, too. Enjoy "realistic" violence? Well, we're not going to stop kicking this guy for five minutes. Prefer it's aestheticized? Here's some endless slow motion. Think the Johnny Cash on the score is apt and fun? Well, how do you feel about "Heroin?" I don't know, maybe I'm turning obvious flaws into hidden virtues; I need to give it more thought.

In conclusion, quit waiting for 35mm and see The Friends of Eddie Coyle. If you think the world of Killing Them Softly is ugly, wait till you see Government Center.

Peter Labuza said...

Thanks for the comments Matt, and certainly there is something about myth I have't processed completely. The line about the sawed off shotgun is quite telling. And it is in a way telling that how much of the film is about how these guys are forced to think through their ideas via political rhetoric in a way, though like you said it's only part of the film. There is something about the whole "careful what you wish for" element that in a way happens for every character. And maybe once I get a blu-ray player this month I'll buy that Eddie Coyle Blu-Ray as the first to try it out on.

Anonymous said...

I've read through this a couple of times, and tried to suss out what you're getting at. (I was fine with the film until the last scene, which is the equivalent of spitting in the audience's face.)

And I'm guessing my confusion comes to these two things: "it’s asking us to ask what isn’t political these days?" Why is that an interesting or worthwhile question? What if one answers "a lot of things outside of this film"? Or "your positing that in your film, Mister Dominik, is nothing but a self-fulfilling deck-stacked irrelevance. And still ham-fisted"? Or if one answers "the sense in which it is 'everything' [a sense with which I disagree, but bracket that] is also a sense in which it was always thus and always will be, so you might as well make a movie about the problematics of breathing"?

And there's also this: "Dominik is, after all, the director who gave us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a grand opus about the closing of the American West, its mythic symbols as portents of death. To assume that Dominik thought it would be a smart choice to reduce politics into blatant metaphors is to assume a lack of intelligence on the director."

(1) The same man made REAR WINDOW and STAGE FRIGHT, CRIES AND WHISPERS and FROM THE LIVES OF THE MARIONETTES, SUNSET BLVD and IRMA LA DOUCE. There is no reason whatever to assume omnibrilliance or permanent intelligence or whatever (indeed, not a few artists, Hitchcock, Bergman and Wilder among them, have said some of their works were great and some were failures. (2) Why are the details of JESSE JAMES especially relevant here? Indeed, the closing of the West has been a theme ... um ... since the start of the Western as a movie genre, which was both close enough to the actual event and to the near-simultaneous declaration of that event by Frederick Jackson Turner.