I believe in “Intelligent Design”, which is to say I am somewhat a proponent of the Auteur Theory. (Holla, Andrew Sarris!) And when one becomes a semi-proponent of such a theory, they are often inclined to fall in love with the director as much as the work itself. Even if it’s only after one film, if one is so enamored by the precise style, the instantly recognize camera movements, even the name itself, Lord knows said cinephile will be in line for the next film by whatever director they’ve fallen in love with. Such was the case with Andrew Dominik, whose incredible film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford left me intoxicated. But what happens when that director, well, shall we say, seems to lose his mind in a bizarre mash-up of unclear ideas, hack-y visuality, and heavy handedness? Uh, well, you seem to get Dominik’s extremely disappointing Killing Them Softly, or, as I thought of it, I Have No Idea What I Want to Say or How to Say It.
In Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, follows a hit man (Brad Pitt), as he follows a couple of people who turned over a card game and made it look like another guy did it (said fellow played by Ray Liotta, which makes one wonder where he’s been all these years). Meanwhile, as Pitt’s hit man talks with various people in bars and cars about the approach, the reason, and the morality of the hits, the two fellows who committed the crime, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), try, seemingly half heartedly, to avoid the new price on their heads.
I do not believe I have ever watched a film that was so incredibly heavy handed and yet had no idea what it was saying or how to say it. Prior to the official release of the film in the United States, back when it prancing around Cannes and competing for the Palme d’Or, Dominik and his team, whoever they are, decided on a fairly overt Americana theme. This Americana theme, which was not, however, very present in the trailers for the film, seems to try to set up some sort of thematic arc or thesis for the film, but, just as the film itself, it seems to be only vaguely related to the film. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of some political figure on a TV or disembodied voice on the radio, whether it is McCain, Obama, or even W. Bush, talking about the economy. So, here lies the first problem: Less of a lesson or exercise in self reflexivity, Dominick goes for the heavy handedness outside of the direct dialogue (with the exception of certain scenes and certain pieces of dialogue), and feeds it to the audience in a very strange way. He feeds us his badly constructed lesson like a third party. A part of me would have preferred a Godardian lesson through the characters (knock on wood) as opposed to a fairly lazy attempt at chastising the American people. But, as often as these little sound bites from various political speeches featured on CNN and C-SPAN are there, and as often as they use buzz words like “Economy!” and “Fiscal” and “Community!” and “People!”, Dominik doesn’t really say anything about this. There are vague hints about why he’s trying to say something, with the hit man once or twice tip-toeing towards pontification about America being “a business” and the state of the country, but like an essay without an outline or any real thesis, the heavy handedness just seems loud, obnoxious, and vague. In a way, Killing Them Softly is like Andrew Dominik’s economically aimed, loosely neo-noir version of Dogville (whose thesis is far more clear cut, and yet excellently articulated cinematically). There’s some sort of attempt at juxtaposition in the film, with the gritty and slummy landscape of the gangsters (?) and the immaculate, expensive setting for the hit men. But, again, that try at visual cues does not translate well or effectively. There’s a hint of libertarianism, which left me sitting in the theater wondering, “Did Ayn Rand’s ghost possess Dominik or something?”
I was hoping that if the story was lackluster and all over the place, that at least the visual style would be interesting. And I guess you could call it interesting. Interesting in that it is a train wreck. While The Assassination of Jesse James’ style was refined, gorgeous, and purposefully shot (by Roger Deakins, no less), Killing Them Softly’s cinematography felt like the bastard child of J.J. Abrams, Julian Schnabel, and Guy Ritchie. Granted, some of the scenes do look good, but there is, by no means at all, any kind of consistency to the images on the screen. Nothing seems coherently placed together, its editing just as lackluster. Yes, the slow motion scene where Brad Pitt shoots someone looks pretty great (reminiscent of some of the finer scenes in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline pumped reboot of Sherlock Holmes), but… why? With Russell’s heroin addict, some of his scenes are straight out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, OH THE LENS FLARE! It’s ironic that so many of the scenes should be dictated less by any real action or purpose or even character and more by music and sound, because a short film I recently made (which you can watch here) had just that as its thesis: editing has changed, and when used poorly, can send a film into jeopardy. There’s no purpose to this visual style. There’s no reason. There’s no perspective. It’s just messy. The incoherent mess of a political allegory paired with the hodgepodge visual style… gosh, that’s two strikes.
Stylistically, regarding the plot, we hit another bump in the road. A lot of it, I assume intentionally, feels like a neo-noir. But that tonality of the film shifts, fluctuates, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a switch to something grittier, which under normal circumstances would not be inherently bad. The switch seems to be nodding to films like GoodFellas (which is sort of ironic), where the realism of the violence takes the center stage, disillusioning the audience of the romanticism they became familiar with two decades prior with The Godfather. That would be fine, you know, if it stayed that way. There’s another shift to something talkier, less noir and more “I don’t know what style I’m working with, so this is like an interstitial”. There’s some dark comedy in there for, like, two scenes. If the film had been sliced and diced into a series of vignettes, each short dedicated to its own kind of style and tone, maybe the film would work. But, as is, we get something confused. Excited, probably, but unable to know its own pace and something easily confused.
My last hope would be performances. Richard Jenkins, as a man (named Driver, for the record) who has long conversations with Pitt’s hit man, is good. Brad Pitt is fine. James Gandolfini is not very good. Ray Liotta is pretty good. Scoot McNairy is the only one who gives an enthralling performance, primarily within the first 15 minutes of the film. But no one really seems to bring their A-game. Pitt’s hit man, with his “inconsistent” moral views (he kills people, and yet criticizes the United States) make his character more pseudo-enigmatic rather than one of true depth. There’s no real good study of any of the characters, when this kind of film from this kind of director would definitely call for it. Its script, as well, is all over the place, with big chunks of dialogue and monologue fairly unnecessary and doing nothing to a) illustrate the character in a more detailed way or b) articulate and elaborate on whatever thesis it may or may not have. But, hey, Brad Pitt looks good in sunglasses.
Killing Them Softly is a confused film: stylistically, thematically, and in a narrative sense as well. With little rhyme or reason for many of the creative decisions made, little attempt to give meaty and interesting characters, and a severe allegory that inexplicably doesn’t have any idea how to articulate its thesis well, what is their left to say? What is there left to comment? I haven’t seen Chopper, but Dominik doesn’t really establish a precise and clear voice like he did with Jesse James. It looks like Dominik, maybe trying his hand at post-modernism, spent less time killing them softly and more time killing his audience haphazardly.
Like many past traditionalists, I was initially skeptical of how Daniel Craig would be as James Bond when he took the role in 2006 just before Casino Royale would blow my mind. Actually, I was probably unfairly vehement. Having grown up watching Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al., the very different nature of Craig’s demeanor, not only how he looked, was off putting. However, I have since come to realize that Craig’s acceptance of the role is one the best things that ever happened with the franchise. Fifty years, twenty-three films, and enough martinis to make any sane liver quiver, Bond returns once again in Skyfall, and he is never more potent and more relevant than now. As a long time Bond fan, I can definitely say that Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond films ever made, but one of the best films of the year.
After a mission that goes wrong and results in 007’s death, a mysterious cyber terrorist begins taunting MI6 by posting the names of undercover agents on the web. With the whole of the English government on the watch, Bond resurrects himself from the dead, so to speak, to find the man behind the threats and, in doing so, must travel back into the past to acknowledge things about himself he hasn’t wanted to for year.
The nice thing about the Bond films is that every so often they will feel the need to prove their relevance, regardless if we asked them to or not. Bond is, essentially, a “relic of the Cold War” as his prickly boss M (Judi Dench, then and now) once described him in 1995’s GoldenEye We, even the Americans, still needed a cartoonish action hero to believe in in From Russia with Love; we still liked having that security in The Living Daylights, and we definitely were aware that whatever peace had been reached after the Cold War might not last forever, acknowledged in GoldenEye. Aside from those films, and maybe another couple in there, Bond’s evolution and acknowledgement of the world around him has been minimal at best; that is, until Casino Royale. With Martin Campbell’s gritty and real action epic, Bond was pretty much created from scratch to fit a very post-9/11 world. Why do that? Why not just continue making random action film after random action film? Because, thankfully, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson realized it was time for a change. Maybe they took a nod from Nolan’s Batman Begins, but they knew that this was a new world with new dangers not like the ones from before. And they needed a character who would fit that.
That is the beauty of the character, one could suppose: he is, if anything, flexible. Even if he and his films didn’t always acknowledge whatever context was needed, you knew perfectly well that he could if he wanted to. With a character like Bond that has no strict canon, even in the novels, save for a few details, this flexibility seems inherent and necessary. Not only does reinvention from scratch help with context, one can play around with origin stories, which Casino Royale showed could be done successfully. You could make your character three-freaking-dimensions, even if it meant getting the occasional accusation that your Bond was more Bourne than, well, Bond. (Accusations are silly, and I like to blame it on Marc Forster. Actually, I like to pretend that mediocre mess Quantum of Solace never actually happened.) And that flexibility and acknowledgement of change brings us to the twenty-third Bond film: Skyfall.
Skyfall does both of these things: it acknowledges the context of a very contemporary and very real universe and it continues to dabble into Bond’s past and origin, without ruining the so-called canon. And not only does it do these things well, it does these things so well, that Bond’s 50 year screen history seems comparably young yet obviously there.
Casino Royale hinted and alluded to the post-9/11 thing a little bit, especially when M refers to the stocks crashing, but the rest of it was primarily built subtly around the style of the film. Skyfall aims to be more overt about the changes, and this, surprisingly, works in the film’s favor. There is, shall we say without spoiling, a very analog versus digital argument in the film that thematically travels in the three Craig films, and is in this one put to an end, I suppose. There is a complete and total admittance that this is a new world; there are terrorists that we fear with technologies we can hardly fathom; that we do need a hero. And that’s what James Bond is for, right?
To my recollection, there are only really two Bond films that have gone at any lengths to explore the protagonist’s past, the two being GoldenEye, in which Bond’s former partner 006 (played by always-going-to-die Sean Bean) returns from the dead and tries to steal money via satellite and Casino Royale, where, as you know, we start from scratch. The interesting aspect of Craig taking on the role of Bond is that there seems to be a new part of the canon being made. As aforementioned, the previous Bond films never paid much attention to continuity and they didn’t have to. This might actually be changing slightly, as least in terms of back story. We get, for the first time, a look waaaay back into Bond’s past. Think origin story, sort of. In Skyfall, we get a peak and Bond’s psyche and self-destructive nature; how hard he is willing to push himself; and how is indeed willing to serve Queen and Country, the Queen being M.
Skyfall is, in a way, one of the weirdest James Bond films primarily because it has one hell of an arsenal of cast and crew. While it has had Judi Dench as M since 1995, she was never really fully utilized until now. She has a role in the film; an important one. Through M, we are allowed to explore what kind of person Bond is and what he is willing to sacrifice. Yes, here, Dench is stunning, real, and raw, and M, for the first time in the franchise, is more than just “the boss”. Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as a government person named Mallory. He fits in with the cast quite well, almost immediately able to pick up the pace when it comes to repartee with Bond. We have Naomi Harris as Eve, both talented, agile, and stunningly gorgeous. We have Berenice Marlohe, whom, I suppose, while certainly adding something to the film, might be Skyfall’s one “weak spot”, though hardly marring the experience. She’s good, no doubt, adding to the Asian atmosphere and certainly introducing Bond to something key, but perhaps inessential in several ways. We have Ben Whishaw as the new, young, snappy Q. Whishaw is actually quite adept at creating a new persona for his new Q while being able to, again, glide into that traditional verbal jousting. Aaaaand, of course, you have your Big Three: Bardem, Mendes, and Deakins.
Javier Bardem should, no doubt, go into the hall of fame for making awful hairstyles into iconic traits of some of the nastiest villains on screen. YES, you heard me, I’m including Bardem’s Silva in that superlative! Maybe it’s Bardem’s theatricality (sans scene chewery), maybe it’s the weird blonde hair, maybe it’s the connection to Bond’s past, but Silva is, name notwithstanding, the most memorable Bond villain to come around in ages. He has, in the (comparably) short time span of 2 hours and 45 minutes, earned a place in the Rogues Hall of Fame, next to Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre (or maybe I remember him because he’s played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson?). There is something very wrong and very twisted about Silva that seems so much more damaging than most Bond villains. Maybe a little Freudian on the part of excellent screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but Bardem’s new villain is one of the most menacing and, dare I say it, one of the most memorable since Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The last “good” director, as in reputable, they got to direct a Bond film was, arguably, Michael Apted in 1999 for The World is Not Enough. Apted is well known for directing the Up documentary series (in which a number of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds are followed and caught up with every seven years; there’s, like, 8 films in the series), but his entry in the Bond franchise is, sadly, known as one of the weakest. This time, we get the Oscar winner of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road (which is the most depressing film I think I’ve ever seen, in case you were wondering). Does the high caliber of the director make a difference? Here, it looks like it does. AND WHAT A DIFFERENCE. When the film could have had a lot of dull moments (like the ones really anal people complained about in Casino Royale), Mendes makes these moments barely a lull in the story and, instead, a way to further character examination. The film is arguably one the most perfectly paced in the franchise, with nary a dull moment. It balances the high drama and character study with the thrilling action without much fault. Oh, yeah, the film is one of the most thrilling action films of the year, with set pieces worthy of any Bond film. Mendes’ mark on the Bond series will be indelible.
Which, I suppose, leads me to Deakins. Roger Deakins is very well known for working with the Coen Brothers on films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc. So, getting him to do cinematography for a Bond film is, quite honestly, one of the best decisions ever made. Skyfall is one damn fine looking Bond film: the best looking Bond film of the franchise. Without taking away from the story or even the atmosphere of it being a Bond film, the film looks stunning. Golds, blues, and impeccable lighting fill the film throughout, making you wonder, “Damn, why hasn’t Bond looked this good before?”
The last thing to address is brief: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise, and much like the fortieth anniversary, which coincided with the release of Die Another Day, there are some clever allusions in the film (much cleverer and much more subtle than the aforementioned film). There’s the DB5 from Goldfinger, there’s an allusion to an exploding pen, etc. But while the first two acts of the film is filled with these little references, they all serve a greater purpose: to acknowledge that there is kind of a history and then to, essentially, make way for a new one. I posit that one of the cleverest decisions made on the crew’s part was to include the innocuous anomalies to the franchise and then discard of them towards the end as we “enter Bond’s psyche” and look into his past. That, I think, was done to really show that the character of James Bond, Agent 007 has truly evolved from just a dapper dandy playing baccarat or poker to a human being facing the world’s new demons at the same time he’s facing his own.
Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond film; it’s a great film period, and one of the best of the year. Exploring new facets of Bond and M, acknowledging the context of the world and universe the film takes place in, and truly allowing the character evolve is all the things this film does right. There’s stunning direction, a bravura performance each from Craig, Bardem, and Dench, and the film looks incredible (see it in IMAX!). If this is the direction Bond is heading towards in future films, count me in. The film left me shaken and stirred. And, most importantly, it reminded me that it’s true: when it comes to saving the world, nobody does it better.