Film review – Killing Them Softly (2012)

11 October 2012
Killing Them Softly: Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)

Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)

‘This is business not personal’ is one of the classic lines spoken in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece about Italian-American organised crime, and it’s become a line synonymous with the film’s capitalism allegory. While the gangster and crime genres have long been an ideal template for critiquing the indifferent whims and inequalities of the free market and the greed and borderline psychopathic behaviour of the financial sector, few have so overtly and rigorous explored the metaphor to the extent of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.

While it is adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, Killing Them Softly is a character driven crime drama set during the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis and the 2008 Obama/McCain election. Continual news broadcasts in the background announce the oncoming financial crisis along with speeches by outgoing president George W Bush and incoming president Barack Obama. This provides a backdrop to the film’s story of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional organised crime enforcer who comes to town to investigate a card game heist. The system Cogan needs to protect has been threatened by petty criminals trying to reach above their status in a time of economic uncertainty and Cogan’s employers do not need that instability. The guilty parties need to be held to account and some calculated collateral damage will also need to occur to ensure the people at the top continue getting paid and good PR is maintained. The crime/capitalism metaphor is anything but subtle – and the final line of the film really rams home the message in case anybody still hasn’t picked it up – but that doesn’t stop Killing Them Softly from being a potent critique of what is rotten at the core of contemporary American capitalism.

Just as the political speeches ring hollow with the usual rhetoric, the classic gangster/capitalist ideal of individualism is revealed to be an unobtainable myth. The bottom dwelling criminals who aspire to more by pulling one supposedly fool proof heist soon discover that they cannot possibly beat the system. While the myth of the lone enforcer is expressed though the Cogan character, he still answers to a committee of criminals via their lawyer, known simply as Driver (Richard Jenkins). And like in many Martin Scorsese films (especially Goodfellas,which shares Killing Them Softly actor Ray Liotta) as well as the cable television series The Sopranos (which shares actors including James Gandolfini) the characters aren’t guaranteed a big climatic finale. Some die off screen, some simply leave the narrative through more mundane plot developments. The romantic notion of hitting the big time and then exiting in a blaze of glory is undermined reflecting the reality that most people fade away with a whimper rather than a bang of a gun.

Cars play an important part in Killing Them Softly for also demythologising the promises of 21st century capitalism. Particularly in classical Hollywood cinema, cars have represented freedom, youthfulness and affluence. They are a perfect symbol of the Great American Dream; a mass-produced status symbol with the power to speed the owner away to a better place. In Killing Them Softly cars represent death. They are the recurring meeting place for Cogan and Driver where they debate who needs to die and who needs to be simply beaten in order to maintain the status quo. Furthermore all on screen deaths and other acts of violence occur inside cars or next to cars, stripping them of their liberating power and leaving them impotent.

The cynical and ruthless themes are also expressed visually. The brown and orange look of the film captures the feelings of decay and depression, establishing the setting as a type of urban frontier; untamed and existing on the fringes. The jarring sound and visual editing during the credits and opening scene very effectively establish the unnerving and fragmented world that the film takes place in. Most impressive is the extraordinary sound design and Greig Fraser’s cinematography. The heist scene boasts an almost unbearable tension while key scenes of violence are turned in grotesque mini-performance pieces where every time a punch lands or a gun is fired, the moment is experienced viscerally by the audience. One disturbing yet captivating death scene is shot in ultra slow motion to become a visual symphony of rain, broken glass and blood. Other characters may fade away, but those who do get to exit dramatically become a spectacle of brutality and agony, where the audience experiences every splatter of blood and every torn piece of flesh.

Killing Them Softly is the work of an extremely confident filmmaker. While having previously explored larger than life criminals/anti-heroes in Chopper (2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik reaches new heights with this crime parable. Incorporating several stunning stylised moments with a grim, gritty reality, Killing Them Softly is an engrossing vision of hell where status, money and image have become the ultimate goals and human life is just another commodity to be traded.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Moneyball (2011)

10 November 2011
Moneyball: Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

The extent to which a film about sporting statistics can be enthralling is best demonstrated during a series of high stake negotiations over the phone in Moneyball. The two main characters, Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are in their small office putting their controversial player trading strategy to work. As the financial underdogs of Major League Baseball in 2002, Beane and Brand have developed a radical new approach to compiling a team to compete with clubs who have bigger budgets and therefore stronger player buying power. Through careful player statistics scrutiny Beane and Brand went after overlooked players who would theoretically become a team capable of winning. For a film about the behind-the-scenes politics of baseball, it is therefore appropriate that a behind-the-scenes sequence is the most exciting moment. Beane and Brand juggle phone calls, negotiate on the run and communicate split decisions to each other while maintaining the illusion of calm conversation on the phone. It’s tense and exhilarating.

With Beane as the extrovert and Brand as the introvert, the pair are a likeable, underdogs odd couple taking on an unfair system. Like the players they controversially select, they are also both under appreciated and underachievers. While far more traditionally ‘heroic’ than the protagonists from The Social Network (written by Moneyball co-writer Aaron Sorkin), Beane and Brand change the rules of the game to suit themselves rather than follow the conventional approach. This attracts substantial criticism and condemnation, with critics of their system applying a disproportionate focus on their losses rather than triumphs.

The criticism that Beane and Brand receive reveals a broader trend in social discourse to discredit methodical and scientific approaches over intuition and common sense, or at least the myth of intuition and common-sense. Within the film the accusations of Beane being out of touch become increasingly defensive to expose just how threatened wealthy and powerful interests are when their dominance is challenged. And since one of the key ways the powerless can challenge the powerful is through methodical strategy and rational thought to expose the flaws in the system, that type of analytical thinking is what is attacked. By making the heroes the guys who use a scientific approach to challenge the status quo, Moneyball pleasingly goes against the Hollywood tendency of deriding intelligence.

Moneyball: Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Moneyball is a restrained drama with moments of unconventional excitement. As the film is predominantly from the perspective of Beane, very little actual baseball is shown since Beane was apparently superstitious about attending games. The games are mostly conveyed to the audience in the way they are conveyed to Beane: via brief sound bites on the radio, news reports and text messages from Brand. This keeps the attention on Beane and the execution of his and Brand’s strategy, rather than the typical sport film approach of focusing on the actual game. The film mostly avoids cliché with Beane and Brand’s relationship never going into bromance territory. Some sentiment does seep in during the scenes with Beane’s daughter, but there’s nothing overtly distracting.

A degree of grounding to the film is created through the inclusion of ‘dead time’. Such moments are usually edited out to keep the film zipping along, but Moneyball is full of small and short moments between main bits of dialogue and action to remind the audience of the almost banal and highly unglamorous nature of the machinations off the pitch. Impressively Moneyball manages to convey both a sense of everydayness to what it depicts while also demonstrating the excitement of Beane and Brand’s approach, which would go on to completely change the nature of professional baseball.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

30 June 2011
The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)

Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

26 December 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.

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