Friday, December 14, 2012

Film Pairing — Filming George V. Higgins And The Definition of Success

The stories are all over the Internet.  The film, Killing Them Softly, “bombed.”  It only made $7 million the first weekend, a pittance, they imply, compared to such megahits as Twilight, Part 310 and the 2,000th Bond bonanza Skyfall.  The L.A. Times asks, “What went wrong?”

Nothing went wrong.  The way success is measured is wrong. The movie will very likely not only pay its expenses but make a tidy sum for those who invested in it. Skyfall had a budget of nearly $200 million and Killing Them Softly’s budget was $15 million. During its first weekend it made half its cost back.  The film was not intended to be a blockbuster, but a fine film that tells a realistic crime story without superheroes and special effects.  It’s a different kind of movie. Saying “it bombed,” is irresponsible journalism.

What fascinated me about all this is that in a way Killing Them Softly is about how our money-oriented culture corrupts everything, including, I would add, what we value. The labeling of this film as a failure because it didn’t compare well to blockbusters shows how far off the compass of the definition of success is.  I want to yell at the L.A. Times, what’s wrong with you people?

During the opening credits and reappearing from time to time throughout the film, we hear former President Bush talking about the need to bail out the banks. Paulson is heard too, as is Obama.  The gist of what we hear from them is that the banks need to be bailed out, not because it is the morally correct thing to do, or even that they really need it, but they, the rich bankers, need taxpayer money because of an unfortunate perception.  And we can pretty much ignore the crimes the bankers committed for the larger good, the greater perception.  These brief allusions offer a kind of background music, certainly a theme, which the film mirrors.

The story is about a guy (Ray Liotta) who puts together illegal, high-stakes poker games. Let’s call that Wall Street.  The games are real money-makers for a crime syndicate.  At one time, many years earlier, the Liotta character robbed his own game (any number of high-profile CEOs may be substituted) though as years past and players changed, his misdeed though now largely known, but considered a funny story, well in the past.  However, a clever someone figures out the situation offers the perfect set up. It’s a dangerous idea to rob them. He knows that. These aren’t a bunch of mechanics and taxi drivers blowing off steam on a Friday night.  These are genuine tough guys playing the game and even tougher ones running it.  It’s big business to the local mafia.  But the idea is that the tough guys will figure its Liotta who did it again.  The super-tough bad guys would take him out, leaving the real robbers to go free with their loot.

Despite the hilariously inept heist, the concept seems to work.  They get the money and they get away.

The syndicate folks call in a professional hit man to take care of business.  Enter the mightily cool Brad Pitt.  I say that without sarcasm.  We don’t know where he came from.  We know nothing about him except that he seems to be the sanest, smartest character we’ve met so far.  He also advises the mob’s attorney/courier/negotiator, played excellently by Richard Jenkins that it’s not necessary to beat up the Liotta character because they’re just going to have him killed anyway.  Why, put the poor guy through the pain? Pitt asks.  There’s a committee, the attorney said, that wants it that way. “A committee?” Pitt asks, incredulous.  After some thugs beat Liotta mercilessly and endlessly, they conclude he is actually innocent.  But he must be killed anyway. It’s a matter of perception. Some might think he did it and got by with it. It’s crucial that the punishment me quick and severe.  The poker business is way down.  People aren’t showing up and besides, if it appears that the games are such an easy mark, every amateur thug in the area will think they can do it and the players will stay away.  That’s not good for the economy, their economy. So, some of guys are killed because they did it.  One is killed because the perception of his guilt is bad for business.

The movie, based on the highly regarded noir-novelist George V. Higgins book, Cogan’s Trade, is well put together.  The characters are well-drawn and well-acted. Pitt, Liotta and Jenkins, who should be considered for an Academy Award nomination, are joined by James Gandolfini, who, alone, is worth the price of admission as a top-notch hit man, now a dysfunctional alcoholic.  Sam Shepard plays an enforcer in this drama that was moved from Higgins’ Boston in the ‘70s to a desolate New Orleans of 2008.  Purists might object, but it works. Andrew Dominik directed the film.

In the end, we are left at a bar where Jenkins pays off Pitt, but shorts him on the agreed amount.  The television over the bar shows President Obama talking about what it means to be an American.  Pitt’s character sarcastically predicts Obama’s standard line, we are not Republicans and Democrats, but we are one community, one country. 

“America is not a country,” Pitt tells the attorney.  “It is a business. Now I want my money.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that in an earlier film based on Higgins novel, bars play an important role.  And in this one, Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), directed by Peter Yates, the film begins with a heist as well.  Robert Mitchum is at the top of his form as blue-collar worker in Boston, trying to support a wife and three kids with a low-paying job and questionable supplemental income from highly questionable friends.  We all know guys like this.  Basically good guys, but willing to cut some ethical corners for a quick return. Desperate times, desperate measures. But Coyle is getting too old for this.  And he knows it. That doesn’t mean he can do anything about it.  First he gets screwed by the bad guys.  Then he gets screwed by the good guys.  There’s no escape. Peter Boyle’s portrayal of a bartender who knows how to survive in a corrupt world fits right in with the low-life crowd and Steven Keats, in his first Hollywood film, is, as is said now, “spot on” as the gun runner.  Everything about this film screams authentic and is a good match for the more recent Killing Then Softly.

Though the Higgins’ books that formed the basis for these two movies are only a few years apart, there is a huge gap between films.  A third film production, Rats on Fire, had been underway, but was stopped by legal issues. 

Go see the Pitt film, stop by a local dive, have a beer.  Go home, watch Friends of Eddie Coyle with a shot of whiskey and go to bed.

Special alert — Early 2013 films that looked promising in previews:

Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum
Broken City, directed by Allen Hughes, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine-Zita Jones and Barry Pepper
Gangster Squad, based on the L.A. Times news series, “Tales from the Gangster Squad,” by journalist Paul Lieberman, directed by Ruben Fleischer, starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone and Sean Penn.

No comments: