Thursday, February 18, 2016

Telling Stories: Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I should start that by saying the real genesis of this piece came in an episode of The Cinephiliacs from last year in which Peter Labuza and Matt Dessem discussed Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Responding to Labuza's difficulty with why this movie (shot by Roger Deakins) looks so damn gorgeous, Dessem said: "I think it's about the way that you write your own story after the fact--you can take anything in your life and you can turn it into an epic." My construal of this is not simply the idea of looking back on a far-removed event and coming up with a narrative about it to suit one's needs, but to take things that are more current, more present, and explain them subjectively. Dessem cites the moment in the film when we see the sister of Wood Hite (a gang member played by Jeremy Renner) put out a candle by squeezing the wick. It's a beautiful shot, and is even used to close out the trailers for the movie. But in the context of the film, it occurs in an outhouse just before another gang member, Dick Liddil, has sex with the sister. Dessem's theory is then one of symbolism: the use of a beautiful image situated in an ugly environment represents the idea of how we can manipulate reality by presenting our own version of it. 

The film, though, stresses this literally as well through the words of the characters, most notably Robert Ford. Take for example, the scene in which James visits the the farmhouse of Ford's sister, where Robert and his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) are staying. Robert is teasingly pressured by Charlie to explain part of his obsession with James by stating the ways their lives overlap. Ford, who at this point has grown more suspicious of his idol's greatness, hesitates for a while but then concedes: "You're the youngest of three James boys, I'm the youngest of five Ford boys, between Charlie and me there's another brother, Wilbur, six letters in his name, and between Frank and you is another brother, Robert, also with six letters. You have blue eyes, I have blue eyes, you're five feet eight inches tall, I'm five feet eight inches tall..." These coincidences have been traced carefully by Robert and he's created a story about them: they serve his infatuation with this legendary outlaw and suggest he's not simply a fan, but that his dream of riding with the James gang is destined by the ways their lives overlap. Or take his encounter with Frank James at the beginning of the film, when he says in his crackling, wheezy voice, "folks take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I've always thought of myself as being just a rundown from the James brothers." There's no definitive interpretation, only stories, and as Ford shows, the line between mediocrity and grandiosity is just an act of telling yourself what you want to hear. 
Back to Dessem's idea about imagery, which I think is an outstanding framework for the movie, as it provides a relationship between the film's plot/character/themes and its beguiling cinematography. The dichotomy between the the rich painterly images that suggest a grand, mythic version of the Jesse James narrative and the slow, often meandering story packed with all sorts trivial events is explained rather than defied. The film could have expressed the same ideas about Jesse James, Robert Ford, and the world in which they lived without heeding so much to visual style, but then what good would the film do? You might as well just skip it and read the book of the same name by Ron Hansen from which it's based. But instead, there's a rich integration between form and style wherein the gorgeous images reflect the chief idea in the movie: that we can tell ourselves a story about our actions not so much to justify them, but to give them import, greater significance than they really hold. In short, the movie's about how we order our actions by interpreting them in the most self-beneficial way, whether it be to achieve personal sense of peace, greatness, or whatever it is you really want in life. 

 Even the film's famously long title is most unusual because it tells a story: this is a movie about Jesse James getting killed by a man named Robert Ford, who's a coward. You might complain that the title gives away the movie as well as interprets a chief element of it (namely the cowardice of Robert Ford), but that's actually the point of it: the title makes us privy to such information only to suggest that it's a part of the film's larger argument: the title interprets history, tells a story about it only as a reflection of the idea that history is subjective and the only way to organize it, just as a person organizes his own life, is to create a narrative about it. 


Except that they both star Brad Pitt, this nearly three hour historical epic initially seems at odds with Dominik's next film, the swift 96-minute Killing Them Softly. The former is a rich tapestry of history, psychology, and mythology, filled with expansive exteriors and warmly lit interiors and traverses across the American landscape through vast periods of time, while the latter is a in-the-moment thriller that sticks to its plot, is set in a single city, and has a austere grey visual palette composed largely around men talking in cars or bars, and windows often streaked in rain. 

The incessant patter, which consists mainly of talk about sex, drugs, money, and murder schemes, is punctuated by acts of violence and not much else. We don't get much of the characters' psychology, but that's ultimately because maybe there's just not that much psychology to explore. These are men who don't think so much as act and react. "America's not a country, it's just a business," Brad Pitt's character Jackie Cogan declares. This idea extends to everyone in the world of the movie, and that business that they partake in is one of moral indifference and a selfish need for personal gain.

But is that not largely the world of The Assassination of Jesse James as well? After the film's brief prologue (in which omniscient third-person narrator Hugh Ross provides some exposition of who Jesse is within the context of the narrative we're about to embark on) we get a lengthy scene in the woods as the James gang prepares for the Blue Cut train robbery. Except that there's not really a whole lot of preparation to be had except just waiting around and chatting, like men would do on a camping trip or over drinks at a bar. A lot of it's funny too, as the banter between males, uninhibited by women or families, often is: Charlie Ford sitting next to Jesse on a log and the outlaw complaining after Charlie spits tobacco juice and lands it on his boot, or Dick Liddil explaining in exaggerated detail about how he "diddled a squaw" or how "poetry don't work on whores." Even Ford's first encounter with Jesse is reduced to James talking about how the stew they're eating would be great if it had noodles. 

When night falls and the gang waits by the tracks piled high with lumber to stop the train, Dominik and Deakins imbue the scene with formal grace and magnificence. As the train approaches and then applies the breaks, we see sparks from the the rails shoot out like fireworks, and then Jesse himself standing atop the barricade. It's not the pile of wood stopping this train, but Jesse James-not a man, but an idea of a man as a mighty force-stopping this train. His body is then engulfed by steam, like he's some sort of phantom, some other-worldly power. But the the train robbery itself turns out to be an awkward affair. There's less money and more chaos than was intended, including Jesse showcasing his violent temperament that reduces him to something far more savage and primitive than the previous magisterial images on the track implied. Any sort of magnificence suggested by the formal qualities of the previous scene are dispelled. Another fine example, I might add, of how the style of the film is a reflection of the film's central idea of telling narratives about things to alter the way they really are. 

The inciting incident in Killing Them Softly is also a robbery, as two hoodlums, Frankie and Russell (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, a dream pairing if there ever was one) are set to break in on a poker game run by a guy named Markie (Ray Liotta), who they're convinced will be blamed for the crime (he previously admitted to robbing his own poker room and got away with it, so he would be the most likely culprit if it happened again). Like The Assassination of Jesse James, the moment preceding the actual crime is low key and actually pretty funny, as the two men engage in banal, humorous repartee about sex and money like a couple comedians. And like Jesse James, the actual heist, while successful, is pretty ugly, lasting longer than it should, and charged with a sense that any glamorous notions of a heist we might have are false, the stuff of stories we tell about them.

The similar openings to Dominik's two films is just to say that though they're contextually very different, they share a lot in common in their treatment of the kinds of men who steal for a living and the impressions they wish to give the viewer about their lifestyle. 

But to get back to my original notion of creating personal narratives as frameworks for action and how film style can comment on this idea, I suggest here that in this regard Killing Them Softly is doing the same thing as The Assassination of Jesse James. 

Given that this is such an ugly film in terms of its plot and characters, one has to ask, like in Dominik's previous film, why Killing Them Softly is chock-full of beautiful imagery? There are numerous shots that I could point out that are simply aesthetically pleasing (see this blog entry for a couple of them), but what I especially want to focus on are two scenes involving Markie, one in which he is beat to a pulp, and the other in which he is killed by Jackie Hogan. 

The first scene, which is predicated on the idea that Markie will simply admit to the robbery if he's bloodied up enough, is a gorgeous display of ugliness. The two men who attack Markie are merciless, and they hurt him about as much as they can without actually killing him. Hence, I was fairly disturbed that I found this scene so stunning to look at. The scene is set at night, it's raining, and Dominik uses extremely bright lighting (vital to the scene's effect. It's as if there's a spotlight on these men, like they're putting on a show) that both accentuates the blood dripping down Markie's face and the viciousness of of the attackers' white faces (heightened by the contrast of their black leather jackets that shimmer in the rain). Soft-focus gives the city lights in the background a warm ambience, contrasted with the cold sickness occurring in the foreground. The scene is a hideous display of merciless violence, yet it's presented in such a stylish manner that we paradoxically admire it and detest it all the more for bearing any resemblance to beauty. 

This paradox is heightened in the scene where Markie actually gets shot by Cogan. The ugliness of this situation wherein Markie must be taken out regardless of whether he is guilty or not could have been presented in a quiet, no-nonsense manner, which would work because that's largely how the men in this world operate. Killing is not a moral issue, it's just part of the job. But instead, we get a hyper-stylized scene that's in conflict with the viciousness on display. When I wrote about the film a few years ago, I had this to say about it:

Markie is finally killed by Jackie while sitting in his car. Jackie pulls up and fires three or four shots, sending Markie to kingdom come, yet the way Dominik shoots the scene suggests a conflict of interests. It’s shot in ultra slow motion, as we see Jackie’s semi-automatic release the bullets and slowly travel through space, shatter the glass of Markie’s car, penetrate his body and flood the vehicle with blood. It’s one of the best uses of slow motion I’ve seen, but it sort of contradicts the hard realism that permeates the rest of the film. It does look like it comes right out of a Tarantino movie, and I honestly can’t figure out why Dominik would shoot the scene that way for any reason but to look cool. And it comes across as all the more jarring when Jackie makes his second kill and shoots his victim through the window of a car with a single shot from a long way off. The car blocks the body and we don't even see it hit the pavement. 

But within the context of my argument now, it makes perfect sense, especially when considering what The Assassination of Jesse James was attempting with its own beautiful imagery. Which raises the question: Is Killing Them Softly also about the creation of a narrative to suit one's own needs?

I'd argue that, among other things, it most definitely is. It would be useful to first examine the film's incessant reliance on the 2008 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain as a kind of voiceover that's in conflict with the film's narrative. We hear the typical campaign language of change, economic equality, etc... until finally at the end we actually get Cogan commenting on these ideas directly at a bar while Obama gives his inauguration speech from a TV in the corner. It's here that we get his great "America's not a country, just a business" line, which is vital because it's not true. Cogan is limiting his understanding of America to the criminal world he lives in, and his line is the story he's telling himself about America. Because the film isn't interested in getting inside its characters' heads, we're not sure if this story is something that gives him a sense of justification for what he does, or simply some respite from the constant pressure of his job to kill people (we know he gets uncomfortable with the emotional aspect of murdering someone and prefers to take them out from a distance, hence the title). Perhaps he doesn't really like his job, but it gets him the money he needs to survive, and if America really is as crooked as he suggests it to be, then what's the point of making an effort to live a better life? 

In a sense, we can see the political voiceovers of Killing Them Softly and Hugh Ross' voiceover in The Assassination of Jesse James as performing like functions. They both allow their respective films to tell stories that contradict the voiceover due to the way the characters construct their own versions of their stories. Ross, with his rich, fluid voice, sounds like he's reading from a history text, that his words are absolute. In some sense they are, but his inclusion in the story seems less about providing historical information than a jarring shift that the way he's talking about history is simply another story and different than the ones the characters he's talking about might have.

Similarly, the voiceovers in Killing Them Softly, while certainly more immediate, are also merely men telling stories about how America will be (versus how it was) that contradicts the world of the film we're given. 

I think it would be erroneous to simply suggest that Killing Them Softly is about America as seen on TV and America in reality, just as it would be a mistake to read The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as an historical account of a killing by a coward. I think they're far more complex works, with no obvious answers, but plenty of potential narratives to explicate. I've attempted one here that links the movies together in a way I'd previously never considered, but again, that's just my story. 

No comments: