“Killing” style at the box office

Marrying 1970s grit with druggy matrix effects

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: R
Grade: B+

I’m a huge fan of Prince, The Roots and Level 42; a fanatic, in fact, which means that any new release from them guarantees an instant buy, and not just a digital download from iTunes. No, I’m talking about heading out to my local record store – an independent spot – to lay down some cash on a CD with liner notes that will eventually end up in my personal collection. I rush out to bookstores to purchase new editions from John Edgar Wideman, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster and Joyce Carol Oates (with Oates, I’m not ashamed to admit that back in the day, I used to stalk her readings in the Philadelphia area).

Sometimes, in my weekly focus on the critical angle, what gets lost is my real love for film, and as part of that love there are elements that I look for or, more basically, films and filmmakers that I simply need to see, just like a regular viewer, as soon as they reach theaters. Each year there are movies that I must see opening weekend, that I would see whether or not I was compelled to because of the demands of my job. I would pay 3-D rates to watch Daniel Day-Lewis take a nap onscreen or stand in line for a single projected frame from a David Lynch reel.

Of the current crop of filmmakers on the scene, Andrew Dominik has rocketed onto my fanatic scale. His 2 hour and 40 minute take on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” could have been another 2:40 and I would have simply settled a little deeper into my seat for the ride. Granted, it was a dirty, sleazy affair, but it had to be because Dominik focused on Ford (Casey Affleck), who happens to have been one of the biggest weasels in history. The poor sap was a nobody who longed to be somebody and he attempted to ride the coattails of one of the most fascinating and charismatic outlaws (Brad Pitt as James) of the day. The true genius of the film though (which was based on Ron Hansen’s novel) was the brilliant latter portion that explored Ford’s life after the assassination, when he assumed he would have become an icon in his own right, yet instead remained a small man, a footnote attached to the James legend.

Dominik returns to the world of crime with “Killing Them Softly.” Again working from a novel (“Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins), Dominik, as writer and director, updates the 1970s grit a bit, setting this dank underworld tale in 2008, when America found itself staring into a financial abyss created by deregulation and massive mismanagement by both government and big business. A political white knight loomed – Presidential candidate Obama – offering promises of hope and change. He spoke of uniting us all, red and blue states.

The underworld in “Killing” longs for a figure to settle the score as well because that mismanagement mars the system, giving rise to players who don’t know or understand their roles in the big picture. Two-bit crooks who talk too much and can barely keep their wits (what wit that remains after constant drug and hygiene abuse) about them are stand-ins for a declining citizenry that’s getting squeezed by larger social forces.

And once again, we have Pitt, as an enforcer, an old-school figure, who cleans up problems, but is fully aware that there is very little order at work. He hears the bright and bold promises of Obama – because the running commentary is everywhere – and he cynically scoffs at such fairy tale notions. Dominik’s similar cold-eyed approach to moviemaking makes him a must-see alternative to the soft studio production line.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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