When Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs hit cinema screens twenty years ago, it began a revolution in crime stories that has yet to play entirely out. Tarantino’s modus operandi was an assault of style. Resolutely apolitical and uninterested in right or wrong – his early movies typically placed us on the side of the crims – Tarantino made films infused with self-conscious cool.
Reservoir Dogs began with an iconic scene where the criminals debate the meanings of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ and the virtues of tipping (spawning a rash of imitative dialogue composed by wannabes in film schools across several continents). His 1994 Pulp Fiction made self-conscious use of an eclectic mix of surfing tunes and classic ballads, featured songs like Dusty Springfieds ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, and became a best-selling album in its own right. Tarantino’s violence was stylised, managing to be both explicit and without weight. In Pulp Fiction a man’s head is blown off in a car; the subsequent scene where the criminals clean up is played for laughs.
Tarantino called his company A Band Apart, a reference to a Godard film (Pulp Fiction is structured according to Godard’s maxim that a story must have a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) and the referents for his movies are to be found not in life itself but in other movies. Style over substance, absence of any morality, self-consciousness and imitation – Tarantino’s early movies are often said to be paradigmatically postmodern.
After Tarantino came a spate of slick and uber-cool crime thrillers. The most successful included Guy Richie’s films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (like Reservoir Dogs a heist movie) and Snatch, whose unique selling points were their intricate and labyrinthine plots. If they made less conscious use of music, they nevertheless retained Tarantino’s penchant for grandiose characterisation and lack of moral centre.
New-Zealand born Australian Andrew Dominik’s new film, Killing Them Softly, sits squarely in this post-Tarantino tradition.
Based on the 1974 book Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, the film documents a heist of an illegal poker match by two losers, Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). Unnamed powerbrokers hire Cogan (Brad Pitt) to hunt down the petty-crims and deal with the fallout from the heist.
Like its predecessors, it features stylised violence, self-conscious use of music, a cast of characters bereft of morality. Everyone we meet is ethically compromised. If our sympathies ultimately rest on the hapless Frankie, this is mostly because he doesn’t mean anyone harm. It’s a male world filled with world-weary criminals, all slowly and inevitably unravelling at the edges, with the one exception of Cogan, who gives us a kind of commentary on things, from his own perspective. There’s plenty of vitality here, and the peculiarities and flaws of the characters are well-drawn: Gandolfini’s Mikey, brought in to kill the mastermind of the heist, spends his time in a maudlin alcoholic haze, surrounded by prostitutes; the smell of Mendelsohn’s declining junky Russell practically wafts off the screen; McNairy’s Frankie is like a dumb and good-hearted friend who constantly gets himself into trouble. There’s lots of humour and pathos to be found.
Interestingly, the action takes place against the background of the 2008 presidential race and the Global Financial Crisis. Repeatedly we see Bush and Obama on television as they conduct their campaign and hear radio reports about the subprime mortgage crisis. As a never-ending deluge soaks the desolate New Orleans, where the film is set, we sense America in crisis.
Killing Them Softly thus brings a political backdrop to a resolutely apolitical genre.
At first appearance, this can seem like a contradiction: on the one hand a cast of characters bereft of ethics and on the other critique of social anomie? In a world in which there is no morality – with the exception of Cogan, whose ethics is that of the rules and laws of business – how then can one mount a critique of politician, bankers and the world that they either spawn or create?
But on further inspection, once again we’re being offered perhaps the defining aesthetic of modern cinema: the kind of conservatism found in Clint Eastwood’s films, or in the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, as Yeats would say. We are surrounded by a blood-dimmed tide. Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. Or in the words of a classic conservative, Hobbes, life is nasty, brutish and short. For Hobbes, this is an argument for a strong state, but Dominik’s vision has more of Yeats’ uncertainty. Yeats’ great poem ends not with conviction but a statement: what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, he asks?
Just as Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ is a reflection on the time of its composition in 1919 – a period of deep social crisis emerging from the First World War – the emergence of this wave of conservative films indicates a profound shift in filmmakers’ responses to the contemporary world. Things now also seem to be falling apart, even if we only acknowledge this in Australia on an unconscious level. That tales of apocalypse or decay entrances us indicates a deep shift away from the postmodern playfulness of a Tarantino or even Guy Richie. Killing Them Softly is post-Tarantino crime in the era of 9/11, the War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis.
Dominik’s standard conservative turn is all the more disappointing after his second feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, surely one of the finest movies of the last decade. A subtle meditation on heroism and hero-worship, on the desire to be loved and accepted, possessing a slow-moving elegance in deep contrast to the jittery music-video and advertising style of contemporary film, Dominik had laid claim to the title of auteur. It’s not that Killing Them Softly is lacking in style or is bereft of content. It’s a thoughtful enough movie that nevertheless lacks the originality of Dominik’s earlier films. Slick, fast-paced, clever, tense – Killing Then Softly is Tarantino for the modern age, a time where the apolitical seems increasingly anachronous.