Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" didn't make a lot of noise with critics and audiences when it first opened in 2007. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating (75%) was respectable but unremarkable, and its domestic box office gross ($3.9 million) was paltry by the standards of its superstar lead actor, Brad Pitt. In the years since its premiere, though, "The Assassination" — or "TAOJJBTCRF" for not very short — has quietly accrued a strong reputation among cinephiles as a powerful reexamination of the myths of the Old West. Some now describe it as one of the great films of 2007, along with all-time greats like "No Country For Old Men," "Zodiac," and "There Will Be Blood." Now Dominik and Pitt have reteamed for a new film called "Killing Them Softly," and the question heading into its world premiere at Cannes was whether this collaboration — among the most highly anticipated of the festival according our list of critics to follow on Twitter — would find immediate acceptance or come on slowly, replicating the reception of "The Assassination" as another slow-burning cult art film.
Judging from the early reviews, it's looking more and more like the latter. Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a hitman hired to find and kill the thieves who robbed a mobbed-up big money card game. The result, according to Time's Richard Corliss, is a "genre film with art-house pretensions" — and a "timid, subpar grafting of the immortal 'Pulp Fiction.'" Corliss praises Pitt's third consecutive strong performance (after last year's "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life") and admires the film's thematic investigation of "the impact and etiquette of criminal brutality" but he takes Dominik to task for "a pallid palette, a doctrinaire left-wing take on American mores, the application of anachronistic tunes to underline murders, and [putting] way too much faith in the extemporaneous skills of its actors."
The London Evening Standard's Derek Malcolm offers a similarly mixed take, calling the thriller "more original and also weirder, than most." Malcolm says the film looks good, and contains a smart, cynical script, but he wonders if audiences will be puzzled by the way "Killing Me Softly" "moves from comedy to real-life violence in the space of a few seconds," and by Pitt's unsympathetic potrayal. He also notes a disturbing fact: the "Killing Me Softly" Cannes press screening was met by "almost total silence, which generally means the critics were either bored or absorbed." Maybe in this case, he speculates, it was a bit of both.
Other critics harped on the film's barely hidden political subtext, which adds a layer of background commentary to this off-beat crime story. In Variety, Justin Chang says that "lest one miss the tale's topical import, TV screens and radios are continuously blaring speeches by President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama, full of false hope and lofty talk of choices and consequences, repeatedly suggesting that the era's financial gloom and air of general malaise have trickled down even to America's scuzziest back alleys." Indiewire's own Eric Kohn says the film "isn't political so much as philosophical, trashing the notion of the American dream as anything more than fodder for an endless rat race." And in the The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw compares "Killing Me Softly" to Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," in that it presents "not the dramatic or romantic notion of some brilliant desperado who knows what he wants and is prepared to go outside the law to get it. It is more a question of ruthless, greedy, stupid people who get themselves into a progressively worsening, violent mess." Of course "The Bonfire of the Vanities" didn't make a great movie either, so make of that comparison what you will.
Almost all the Cannes reviews of "Killing Them Softly" are positive, but almost all of them are guarded in some way as well. That may not be a great sign for the film's prospects in America (it opens here in September). But then again "The Assassination of Jesse James" didn't start with a bang, either.
Instant Twitterverse Reaction:
"The more I think about 'Killing Them Softly,' the better it seems. It has all the attributes of a future classic. #cannes"
"'Killing Them Softly' (Dominik) A kind of nasty pulp/noir 'Nashville.' Fun, though politically like being preached at through a bullhorn. #cannes"
"'Killing Them Softly' has surprisingly political subtext — McCain, Obama and economic crisis surprisingly prevalent."
"Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly' – Brutal as f-k! But also lacking a bit. Felt way too short, oddly. Typical hit-and-kill kind of crime flick."
"'Killing Them Softly': But leaning on the metaphor lever waaaaaay tooooo hard. Dominik's nicotine-stained cynicism has some charms, though."