With Martin Scorsese's ear for criminal behavior and Terrence Malick's eye for textured environments that can overwhelm the characters inhabiting them, Australian director Andrew Dominik is more than a typical genre craftsman. Over the past dozen years, Dominik has produced a trio of features that view outlaw behavior through the prism of disturbed men utterly committed to their immoral logic.
None of his movies involve clear-cut heroes and villains; in fact, virtually every prominent character in Dominik's filmography thus far has been a murderer. Nevertheless, his technique showcases a curious hybrid of cinematic trickery and observation without casting heavy judgement on his subjects. His debut, "Chopper," looks in awe at a lunatic capable of leveraging his insanity into a celebrity career. Immensely entertaining without coming across as exploitative, it caught the eye of Hollywood and led Dominik down a path of stalled projects. The seven-year delay ended up being worth the wait: His sophomore feature, "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford," presented a lyrical vision of the western landscape in which the eventual killing of the title arrives at the end of lengthy dance of mortality elevated by striking imagery and quiet exchanges, but punctuated with gunfire. Dominik's "Killing Them Softly," which opens Friday, returns to the grittier crime terrain of his first feature, but pushes beyond the interpersonal relationship between corrupt men to put their behavior in the context of capitalist desires. Unearthing the motivating factors of depraved behavior, Dominik finds that even maniacs inhabit a poetic world riddled with ambiguities.
A breakthrough performance for Eric Bana when he was a still a stand-up comedian, this rambunctious portrait of former thug Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read follows the character through decades of incarceration and street antics in which his brash, violent behavior constantly generates attention while he somehow avoids any serious punishment. The movie stages its bloodiest showdowns with a mixture of dark humor and peculiar dread: Stabbed by an old friend several times while in prison, Chopper strips down and watches the blood trickle down his chest in awe; later, he imagines a testimony against him in rhyming form. An ear-splicing scene gives "Reservoir Dogs" a run for its money, and several other moments find Chopper lasting out against those around him for the slightest challenges to his sense of security. The movie is more interesting in individual moments than as a sum of its parts, but as a first feature it contains remarkable polish. Dominik never glamorizes the character, but his restless style is routinely amazed by Chopper's sheer bravado, a key mechanism in his constant ability to survive — and, eventually, become a best-selling author. Criticwire grade: B+
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Available on DVD.
At one point over four hours long, "Jesse James" arrived in theaters long after its production history gave the impression of an overcooked turkey. Instead, this sweeping, solemn epic puts the western landscape under the microscope, analyzing the mythological dimensions of outlaw antics through the growing resentment of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, in his first truly distinctive role) toward gang leader Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Rendered in hypnotic by Roger Deakins' grand cinematography and a voiceover that gives the proceedings a novelistic sweep, the movie creeps toward its inevitable — and marvelously anti-climatic — showdown as if it were a predetermined ritual from the start. And we're left with the perception that it is: If the western genre presents a vision of American society, then "Jesse James" unearths the unending desire for competition at its roots. Criticwire grade: A
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? Available on Amazon Instant Video, YouTube rental, DVD and Blu-ray.
As usual, there are no good guys in "Killing Them Softly," only people caught on two sides of a rough deal. The director's gritty, violent and heavily stylized adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel updates the story to recession-era 2008 and overstates it to the extreme, but Dominik brings a sleek pulp sensibility to the material and melds its topicality to a strange form of scathingly anti-capitalist entertainment.
Jackie Cogan (Pitt, a similarly hardened baddie to Jesse James, but more solitary) is a merciless hitman assigned to knock off various players involved in robbing a Boston poker game filled with mobsters. But the movie takes its time getting there, spending its first act entirely in the frantic realm of the bottom-feeders involved in the initial theft: Frankie (Scoot McNairy, "Monsters"), a weak-kneed small-time crook hired by scheming thug Johnny (Vincent Curatola) alongside clueless junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to pull off a seemingly foolproof robbery that strategically positions another mobster, Markie (Ray Liotta), as the fall guy. The gig goes off without a hitch until Cogan enters the scene, hired by an unnamed mob representative (Richard Jenkins) to take care of everyone involved… so he does. The movie isn't political so much as philosophical, trashing the notion of the American dream as anything more than fodder for an endless rat race. Read the full review here. Criticwire grade: B+
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? The Weinstein Company releases "Killing Them Softly" in several theaters this Friday.