Sunday, 9 December 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: GEORGE HIGGINS RETURNS ON FILM

Killing Them Softly is only the second film to have been adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins. As the first was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which is a classic, and that was almost 40 years ago, this raises the simple question 'why?'. On the surface, Higgins' novels seem to invite the transition to screenplay; they are written primarily in dialogue, and in Killing Them Softly, just as in Eddie Coyle, large chunks of dialogue are transferred from page to screen virtually intact; forty years have not rendered Higgins' characters or their talk obsolete. Perhaps it's because the dialogue tells so much of the story: Higgins' stories are generally being told by one character to another, with the reader listening in to a very Boston (and Irish) kind of recital. Indeed, Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Cogan's Trade is set in 2008, in a place which looks and lives a lot like post-Katrina New Orleans, but has Boston's suburbs, and seems to be somewhere where everyone sounds like they're from somewhere else, including Australia.

If Eddie Coyle were a perfect little neo-noir, set in Boston's underground, Killing Them Softly aspires to be more, and that may be part of the reason it misses the bigger picture. For Dominik it's the set-up that is the point; the initial robbery, of a mob's poker game, is not quite an inside job, but includes the cynical framing of a hapless victim who has once before tried an inside job. The frame is engineered by a small-time grafter who hires two losers to pull off the job. It nearly works, but it is destined, inevitably, not to work. Jackie Cogan is the man sent in to set the balance right, his trade being that of killer, and in Higgins' world, that balance is a difficult equation, one that proves too difficult for Dominik.

You can see how in bits of the film that are his, not Higgins', like the title. It comes from Cogan's explaining why he likes to kill from a distance, 'softly', because it's embarrassing the way people behave when they realise they are going to die. It marks a sort of embarrassment of his own, not so much at his job, but at the fact that his job is necessary. In Higgins' world, Cogan's job is necessary because although the world has its rules, they are honoured in their breach; that is exactly the way the world works. In Dominick's version, the world doesn't really work. This leads him to surround the story with reminders of the world we are living in, mostly shown on TVs running in the background,with Barack Obama, Shrub Bush, or 'Hank' Paulson illustrating disaster and break-down in the 'real' world outside. It culminates with a shut-down speech by Cogan (as played by Brad Pitt) to the mob lawyer played by Richard Jenkins. On the surface, it is the most prefect Higgins scene, because Jenkins' character is actually the one who best reflects Higgins' world, the one character in this film who could have fit comfortably into Eddie Coyle. Pitt's lecture, however, seems to have been lifted from Howard Zinn, or maybe Oliver Stone or James Ellroy, about how corruption and cheating are at the heart of America; it sure doesn't come from Higgins. Higgins understood that rules are honoured in their breach, and that the real world functions (or perhaps functioned, before the focus of 24/7 TV) in those breaches. It's why many of his best books work in the areas where people make the corruption work, or illustrate to the naïve how it can work.

Dominik's interest is an outgrowth of his earlier film, of Ron Carlson's The Assassination Of Jesse James, which also starred Pitt, and was primarily about the rise of celebrity, and the demands it puts on would-be heroes. Pitt's Cogan is suitably non-heroic when he needs to be—there's an excellent scene in which he explains to one of the doomed hoods that 'very few guys know me', but that's undercut by his larger moral view, and by an extremely awkward introduction set to Johnny Cash's 'The Man Comes Around', which is like being clobbered by a lead mallet. You can also see echoes of Dominik's signature film, Chopper, in his fascination with the violent absurdity of the criminal world—his comic hoods and their scenes of heroin use, which reminded me of the point-of-view bits in Brother From Another Planet or bits of Jackie Brown; the whole circus around James Gandolfini, as the hit man who's lost his nerve; and especially in the wonderful, if familiar, performance by Ray Liotta, both touching and absurd and culminating in extreme violence. For Higgins, this world is not absurd, and its violence rarely shocks in its extremes.

In the end, Killing Them Softly seduces by catching much of Higgins' tone, by casting good actors who make the most of the roles, and by refusing to 'blow up' the story. But if it catches the tone, it misses much of the point, without making a better one of its own.

One footnote: a number of essays about the film remarked that The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was not only Higgins' first novel, but also his best, as if this were some kind of curse and also an explanation for his lack of pick-up by Hollywood. Eddie Coyle is, as I have suggested many times before, a small and perfect book, but not necessarily Higgins' best. Because his style, although refined, remained the same, and remained the inevitable talking-point in reviews, and because he wrote 26 novels, portraying a world that was starting to change, his books received less and less attention as his career continued. In fact, you could look at Killing Them Softly as reflecting the realisation that the world has changed.

But I would argue particularly that The Mandeville Talent (you can link to the IT essay on that book here) is a subtler version of the same idea, dealing with murder and white-collar crime, while a number of his last novels, especially A Change Of Gravity and At End Of Day, are elegant reflections of his world-view in changing times. Higgins is always worth a read, and this film is certainly worth your time as well.

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