Reporting Eric Henderson
It’s not so difficult to envision a grimy criminal underworld where men (and pretty much only men) pick one another off with cold-blooded professionalism.
It’s a little bit further along on the scale of credibility to presume each and every one of them — from the most seasoned career assassin all the way down to the punkest gutter-dwelling wannabe — are constantly and intently listening to each and every speech on the presidential campaign trail.
Killing Them Softly, based on a ’70s crime novel by George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) that’s been transposed to the 2008 election cycle, posits that hitmen are just as obsessed with C-SPAN, Wall Street and bailouts as your average tycoon.
While everyone’s taking stock of the tailspinning economy, a midlevel player running a dry-cleaning store as a front decides to run a heist on a floating illegal poker game that was previously hit by its own proprietor Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, in a magnificently defenseless performance), figuring that everyone will presume Trattman did it again since he blabbed about the previous job while drunk.
The two green crooks he hires for the job (played by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy, who is having a true “star is born” year between this and Argo) get it done without a hitch, but soon find themselves pursued by Brad Pitt’s silent and deadly Jackie Cogan, who has been hired by Mafioso CEO types to eliminate the rogue elements and restore the poker racket, which apparently shuts down in terror any time someone makes off with players’ dough.
Killing Them Softly is going to hit sensation-seeking nihilists’ sweet zone with ease, but I say it’s the most seductive con job of the year, thanks to Dominik’s dazzling direction and uncompromising performances from its ensemble (which is, as I insinuated, almost exclusively male, with only one finger-wagging hooker to pollute the otherwise unyieldingly XY cast). It also boasts an astonishingly versatile collection of methods to depict violence, of which my favorite was the rainstorm beatdown of a puke-prone Liotta, grimly lit by car headlight and featuring harshly isolated foley sound effects.
Dominik’s directorial tricks seem a whole lot less precious here than they did in his previous movie (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite movie they didn’t bother to see in theaters), and he genuinely knows how to piece together pulse-pounding action setpieces. But his equation of America’s economic collapse with Cogan’s disgust over a criminal underworld choking itself to death with myriad loose ends of red tape is far more crass than genuinely existentialist.
Yeah, yeah, Mr. Dominik. We’re all sad tools of a system we have no control over, as useless as that out-of-focus bellowing hood scum who boasts “This is my block” before he gets plugged by no one in particular, blah blah blah. I’m no paragon of patriotism, but you don’t have to be wrapped up in the flag to have your suspicions aroused when someone so enthusiastically starts burning it. Especially when Pitt’s Jackie gets to emerge an iconoclastic antihero standing at the center of a financial maelstrom making sure no one’s tip gets swiped, and the only clear-eyed (“I don’t live in a community of equals, I’m in America”) anti-corporate avatar who, surrounded by gutless, diminishing returns, still dares to name his price.
If Killing Them Softly is the most seductive con job of the year, Hitchcock is the most inept one.
Pieced together by unimaginative committee, clearly aware that almost every high-profile biopic’s central celebrity impersonations coast toward Oscar nominations, Hitchcock comes off as nothing more than a tacky excuse to seat the portly Master of Suspense in front of a heaping plate of fava beans and a nice chianti.
To their credit, the vehicle they chose for the dubious venture was Stephen Rebello’s fascinating production history Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho,” thereby sidestepping the biggest pitfall of biopics — their narrative shapelessness — and focusing in on a specific, singular project in the auteur’s career path. To their debit, they jettisoned almost everything in Rebello’s book, and instead decided to invent a wholly fabricated plot about Hitchcock fearing he’s a cuckold when his wife (and uncredited creative partner) goes off to help an old friend whip his novel into shape as a Hitchcockian thriller. All the better by which to give Helen Mirren a chance to court Oscar herself as Alma “Constantly Refers To Herself By Her Full Name” Reville.
By meticulously recreating the making of arguably Hitchcock’s most infamous and memorable film, and then turning a blind eye to the creative process that made it a classic in order to depict Hitchcock as a corpulent old fool who plainly gets the wrong idea about his spouse’s allegiance, Hitchcock comes off like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead might if it actually featured Hamlet on stage the entire time, with his back to the audience.
The problem isn’t that the film libels his legacy. As a number of other critics have pointed out in the past, Hitchcock’s foibles were already part of his public persona. His masterpiece Vertigo arguably functions as a full-out admission from Hitchcock over his various obsessions (icy blondes) and neuroses (being deprived of control). The problem with Hitchcock is that it relentlessly underestimates the foreknowledge its likely target audience will bring with them, instead offering cheap one Hitchcock Studies 101 punchline after another. (“What if this turns out to be another Vertigo?” he dreads. Har har.)
Not merely a missed opportunity, Hitchcock is a contemptible slap in the face of fans and of absolutely no discernible use for laymen looking for some fresh insight on how a classic shocker came to be.