I really thought it was a sure thing. Andrew Dominik, director of CHOPPER and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD: THE MOTION PICTURE, doing another crime movie, this time based on the book Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. I haven’t read it but I loved a different one by him, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a book about small time hoods that’s made up mostly of long conversations, sometimes going for long stretches without any description, but never getting boring. And also made into a good movie.
After a long wait and a title change and everything we finally got Dominik’s movie, and it’s got all the great things I assumed would be in it: really good performances, a strong sense of tone, a willingness to take its fuckin time, lots of visually inventive scenes, lots of talking (in a good way), some brutality. It’s a solid, arty crime movie that I can almost love, but it also does this thing that makes me kinda hate it.
The story starts with Frankie (Scoot McNairy from ARGO) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn from ANIMAL KINGDOM – actually playing Australian, too), two twitchy low lifes in some seemingly abandoned area of urban blight, trying to take a job from a small fry crime boss (Vincent Curatola) working out of a laundromat. Russell is a really thorough portrait of a Guy We Never Should’ve Had On the Job. It looks cold out but he’s always sweaty, his hair ready for a Lee Daniels movie, he looks dirty, he’s an asshole to everybody, he talks about disgusting things like fucking animals, he’s a junkie, he makes stupid mistakes, he spaces out in a heroin haze while his partner is trying to get important information out of him, he works with a bunch of dogs so other characters mention him smelling like animals or like shit. And you look at him and you can believe it. He’s a scumbag character who stands out among quite a selection of great scumbag characters.
The two nitwits somehow end up getting the job, which is to stick up a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta – what, you didn’t think Ray Liotta would be in this?). There’s a whole back story to it that is supposed to make this a sure thing because supposedly everybody will think Markie set it up. But of course not everything goes as planned – or I guess it mostly does, but it’s just a bad plan. So before long Frankie and Russell are being circled by the people in charge of payback on this one: Richard Jenkins as a sort of bureaucrat usually seen discussing the situation in his car, and Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan (I don’t think they say his name, though), the elite hitman who offers his expertise and his killing people.
Cogan is a more obvious character than Russell. He’s the suave out of town know-it-all super tough guy, chews on toothpicks and spends alot of time on his sideburns and pompadour, like all the sudden Pitt’s back in JOHNNY SUEDE or COOL WORLD again. But he gets more interesting when he makes a mistake and calls in his old friend Mickey (James Gandolfini – what, you also didn’t think James Gandolfini would be in this?) to do one of the killings. Turns out Mickey has lost it and is about as bad as Russell. He never stops drinking, moons over lost loves and is a total dick to innocent waiters and prostitutes. And doesn’t tip.
So the movie takes a nice detour about Jackie hanging out with Mickey, listening to his rambling. And on his face you can see him going from amused to sad to positive that this job has gone to shit. Gandolfini is a great obnoxious, sad character, and Pitt does his best acting just reacting to him.
Hey, this is a good character for Liotta, too. He’s not a cop that seems nice but is actually dirty. Instead he’s a crook that’s dirty but is actually kinda nice. Even though he’s a weasel I felt bad for him when they were punching him until he puked blood.
Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle it’s not as much about the plot as the characters, and that comes out more in conversation than in action. They sit in cars, bars, living rooms and places and they tell stories and shit. And that could be boring, but it’s not. Higgins knows how to write ‘em and Dominik knows how to put together an excellent cast and direct ‘em. And they don’t talk about pop culture at all so for me it never felt post-Tarantino, despite his movies being the gold standard for cinematic talkative criminals, and despite how much RESERVOIR DOGS plays like a Higgins novel.
(The only time I thought it might be Tarantino-inspired was in some of the musical choices, using oddball old songs that sound pretty cool but seem weird for the characters to be listening to.)
It looks good too, and there is one scene in particular that is the most beautiful slow motion shooting I know of. It’s bullets going through glass and it’s so slow and detailed that it reminded me of Trinity falling and shooting in the beginning of THE MATRIX RELOADED, but it looks completely real, not computery. It shows the mechanical movements of the gun in a way I’ve never seen in a movie. I’m gonna have to remember the name of this cinematographer, Greig Fraser. He’s an Australian who’s been around for a while but did some particularly nice lookin ones in the last couple years: LET ME IN and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. And I’m betting his work on ZERO DARK THIRTY will be worth mentioning too.
I like how the camera goes over the stick up kids’ shoulders as they enter the card game, putting you in their place and making you feel nervous even though you don’t really care about these shitbags. Alot of well directed sequences here. Dominik’s got skills.
So what’s the problem? The fatal flaw I mentioned earlier is that it has delusions of Being About Something Bigger. Dominik, an Australian, decided that Higgins’s 1974 novel should actually be about the 2008 U.S. financial crisis and presidential election. And not just “about” like,”Hey, if you think about it this is all a parable about the financial crisis.” “Oh yeah, I didn’t really think about that, but you’re right, that is an interesting way to look at it.” No, not like that. Like, it opens with the sound of an Obama speech playing over a long shot of one of McNairy walking past an American flag in an impoverished ghost town to meet with Mendelsohn under a giant billboard advertising McCain and Obama (which probly works better for metaphoric purposes than for political advertising, in my opinion, why would they have a split billboard?). Then, throughout the movie you hear Bush speeches about the crisis. You hear more Obama speeches. You hear talk radio discussions and news reports. You see C-SPAN. You see CNN. If they go to a bar, the news is on. If they ride in a car, the news is on. Even in the big heist scene, a stick up at a card game, the fucking mafia guys aren’t talking and are listening to the political coverage on a TV. And it ends on the characters talking about Obama’s acceptance speech.
To have such heavy-handed political themes (and both “heavy-handed” and “themes” are being Mother Teresa-level charitable) seems kind of condescending to me, a signal that it wouldn’t be worth it to just do a really fuckin good crime movie, it has to be about fuckin politics to be worthy of Dominik’s time. “Don’t worry people, this is not one of those lowbrow crime movies, this is something more, it’s C-SPAN also,” is the implication. In a way it reminds me of how Godard took a solid crime story in Richard Stark’s The Jugger, but instead of respecting its story and characters just slopped some of its basic elements into movie-ish shape as an excuse to jerk off about American iconography and shit. Of course, this isn’t as bad because I can tell by the dialogue that it’s more faithful to the book and because it does for the most of its running time work on the level of a legit crime movie.
But as Thomas Jefferson once said, it’s fucking distracting. (Or I can’t remember, that might’ve been Christian Bale.) I’m trying to pay attention to this dialogue that sometimes involves keeping track of a number of different names and of who knows who and who has figured out what, but also I’m hearing fucking Bush in the background. I don’t want to hear Bush, but I have to. Alot. There oughta be a warning. Anyway, I also gotta try to decode what that’s supposed to mean.
Sometimes it seems like Dominik is trying to draw specific parallels between events in the story and the news bites. For example, in a scene where Richard Jenkins’s car radio is talking about the bailout being a necessary evil that must be done to restore confidence and save the economy, Brad Pitt is talking about having to kill Markie even though he’s innocent because people don’t think he’s innocent so that will restore confidence so they can have their card games again.
So it seems pretty clear that it’s supposed to be a 1-to-1 comparison here, right? The card games are the economy, and shooting Markie is the bailout, so Brad Pitt is… either Obama or Bush, or Geitner maybe, or Congress? Somewhere I read somebody asking if Ray Liotta was Saddam, which really threw me off because I don’t know how the Iraq war would figure into this thing, but it actually makes more sense than any of the analogies I could come up with.
I don’t know, but let’s figure out what this “killing them softly” business is. It’s a line that Pitt says that was considered important enough to replace the original COGAN’S TRADE title they were gonna go with. Cogan says he doesn’t like to kill people to their face because they cry and beg and it’s “messy,” he doesn’t like emotions, he prefers to “kill them softly” from a distance (which seems to always mean surprising them and shooting them through a car window).
So who is Obama or Bush or Congress or America or whoever killing softly? I’m starting to think that in this part Cogan must represent the cruelty of the big banks, crushing people’s dreams and taking away their homes but they would never walk up and look them in the eye and tell them “oh yeah, I got you to put your money into this and it was a bad idea and now your life savings are gone, better luck next time fella,” they just crush their bones and shit on their souls using complex financial trickery that oughta be illegal and then let the cops be the ones to kick them out of their homes. Killing them softly. So he’s that I guess, he’s not the bailout or whatever. But also the bailout.
That I have no clue what the hell the symbolism is supposed to be would be perfectly fine if it was a normal movie that was not spending a good quarter of its running time waving a sign in front of my face that says “THIS MEANS SOMETHING! IT’S ABOUT AMERICA! WAKE UP AND OPEN YOUR EYES YOU FUCKING SHEEP!” Maybe if you would turn the fuckin news off for a minute I wouldn’t get distracted trying to figure that out and then it would seem like an interesting thing to figure out later instead of a huge failure of storytelling.
This article from Indiewire has a good Cannes press conference quote from Dominik: “As I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation. It just seemed to have something that you couldn’t ignore.” But I figure if it was so unignorable maybe it didn’t have to be pointed out so many times. The front-to-back assault just seems like some dumb asshole pointing out the obvious and wanting us to give him a sticker for it. There’s gotta be a way to make the same point subtly and then maybe it would seem like a neat bonus instead of idiotic pretentiousness. Like, maybe ditch the speeches at the beginning and end and most of the middle, but leave the news playing in one (1) scene. Then it might even seem kinda deep.
One thing that’s weird about this world where all hoods spend all of their time watching and listening to the news: none of them even once mentions anything about politics until the very last scene. These are guys who talk and talk and talk and talk, and also are very, very keen to keep up to date with politics and current events, and yet they never, ever talk about it. Until that scene.
The final scene takes place on election night, with Obama’s acceptance speech playing on the TV in a bar. (And nobody’s really paying attention to it, which makes me think Dominik was not in the U.S. on that night.) Pitt looks at the screen and starts predicting what Obama is gonna say about the country being united, making fun of it and saying it’s bullshit. And he makes this statement that I won’t quote so as not to ruin its impact if you haven’t seen it, but it’s basically denying the possibility of America as an idea and saying it’s just about money, and then it smash cuts to the credits like “Ah ha, I FUCKIN BLEW YOU AWAY WITH THAT ONE, AMERICA. Signed, Andrew Dominik.”
Yeah, thanks for the insights, pal. It really took the objective view of an outsider to pick up on something like that. It’s one of those endings that feels so sure of itself, entirely convinced it just laid out all the groundwork for a powerful argument and then put the last puzzle piece in place right at the exact perfect moment and holy shit we didn’t see it coming and we’re sitting there with goosebumps. But actually what happened was more like we were trying to watch a pretty great crime movie but some asshole kept preaching shit at us that we already heard a million times before and we kept shushing him but the guy has some kind of Aspergers or something and he’s just not gonna be quiet so we’re gonna have to sit and listen to it and try not to let it ruin our enjoyment.
And you know what, on second thought I’d like to throw a with-all-due-respect type of “fuck you” at that very last scene. The more I think about it as I’m writing about it it kinda pisses me off. Pitt’s obviously playing a bad person, but also we’re supposed to see his cynical view of America as being true or somewhat true or wise, right? But the thing is, cynicism is not as unique as really fuckin cynical people always believe it is. Actually, everybody from me to your grandma to Obama thinks America is about money. When he made that speech he knew he was talking to a sea of people who have at least felt that way at some point. His speech wasn’t a denial of reality, it was a call to our better selves, saying that we can and should work together and we can make this place better. He was encouraging those of us who do feel the way Mr. Cogan does to not just accept it, to strive for something better and try to believe in something and attempt to work toward it. And that’s deeper and more productive than your movie.
The worst part is that if it was this good of a crime movie but also worked as a political statement, that would be just about my favorite type of movie, like a THEY LIVE. But this one bluntly tells you it’s about politics before it even tells you it’s a crime movie, then it distracts from at least half a dozen major scenes by pointing it out more, then it leaves you on that note at the end. It shows you what it symbolizes before it shows you the story. If you’re ever gonna make a movie like this I want you to take your hands and turn them into fists, and look at them. Are they made of human meat, or are they made of ham?
Just saying “they’re a bunch of crooks” isn’t new information and doesn’t do us any good, and then you gotta make fun of the idea of trying to fix it. What kind of an asshole has to shit on hope? Why don’t you do another one with lots of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, to show how it’s all a bunch of bullshit ’cause then he got killed and people are still racist. That would be deep, man. Fuck you.
Loved CHOPPER though. And at least you were striving. I’ll watch the next one for sure. Just maybe cool it a little bit there buddy. Thanks pal.