Tag Archives: Cormac McCarthy

Killing Them Softly (2012)

In America you’re on your own. One of the most criminally overlooked movies of 2012 was Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rough-and-tumble tale of petty holdup artists, mob enforcers and the suit-and-ties that control them (or think they control them). Dominik’s follow-up to his excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains some of the same cast and makes a few substitutions, and Killing Them Softly is a very different movie from Dominik’s earlier film and from most American crime dramas on the whole.

When two smalltime down-and-outers (played with hilarious gusto by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a mob-protected card game (run by Ray Liotta’s Markie), the local criminal economy crumbles into chaos. It’s not so much that the robbery is botched as the criminals themselves are botched, making it a fairly simple procedure for Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to arrive in town and put the pieces together. His systematic deconstruction of the situation provides the rest of the drive for Killing Them Softly, but Domnik and Co. enhance the subtleties of every punch and gunshot along the way.

An interesting feature of Killing Them Softly is the way the 2008 presidential election campaign – focused largely on the recession and the floundering economy – plays into the story. Unlike a lot of modern crime dramas, this one is very “bottom-up” – the players we watch are the lowest rungs on the ladder, broke and struggling men desperate to make any kind of score. This isn’t American Gangster or Goodfellas. The highest we go up the totem pole is a glorified messenger played by Richard Jenkins (who is fittingly out-of-place among the rest of the cast), and other than that it’s junkies, drunken hitmen, and enforcers who don’t think twice about shooting a guy. Even Dillon, a world-famous-all-over-New-England enforcer mentioned time and again by nearly every character, appears only once (and happens to be played by Sam Shepard). Addresses from Obama and McCain reach this subfloor of humanity nonetheless, but the blanket statements made by presidential candidates don’t exactly apply way down here.

Continue reading Killing Them Softly (2012)

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Walker (1987)

William Walker was a freewheeling filibuster of a distinct class. Alex Cox’s biopic Walker – branded A TRUE STORY at the outset – features Ed Harris in the title role of the American adventurer whose ideals and morals become muddled. Journeying to Nicaragua in the 1850s, Walker and his band have democracy as their glorious intention. What happens, of course, is something else entirely, and Walker comes to resemble more of a tyrant than anything else.

First, though – wait, was that a helicopter? And a computer? Isn’t this 1850? It becomes increasingly clear throughout Walker that Cox has little regard for historical accuracy, and blatant anachronisms like Walker on the cover of Time and Newsweek pop up all over the place. Cox’s sense of humor is very often visual, as seen again and again in the visual gags running through his first feature Repo Man, and in Walker the intentional inaccuracies certainly do provide laughs. But they have a point, too, and that’s to draw a parallel between Walker’s crazed methods in Nicaragua in the 1850s and American efforts in Latin and South America in the late 1980s.

Whether you enjoy this political narrative bent or not is probably dependent on your own political views. Walker didn’t fare well at the box office upon release in 1987, and Cox never returned to studio filmmaking again. While it doesn’t necessarily come across as heavy-handed, the comparison and damnation of American foreign policy is poured on pretty thick.

Rudy Wurlitzer writes William Walker beautifully, though, and the contrast from Walker to each man in Walker’s miscreant band of somehow-loyal followers is also well done. Straight off the bat the gang – for they certainly could be called no more than a gang – are shown to be unable to even comprehend Walker’s orders that violence should stop and common laws of hygiene be adhered to. “What’s hygiene?” one man asks just before the gang erupt into a murdering spree in the middle of a village. There’s some of the Glanton Gang from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in here, making Ed Harris’s Walker the indomitable Judge Holden, the terrifying hawker of war and death.

Soon, though the men latch onto Walker’s lofty ideals more as an excuse for violence than anything else, the “true north” of Walker’s vision begins to stray. “Some of the men are confused as to just what it is we’re fighting for,” one man confides in him. “I know and they know that the liberals are our friends and the conservatives are our enemies…but to tell you the truth, sir, I can’t tell them apart. They all seem the same to me.”

“That is no concern of yours, nor of the men,” Walker advises. “All you have to remember is that our cause is a righteous one.” Later, Walker dictates to another man trodding in his footsteps that the ends justify the means. The man tiptoes after Walker as the landscape around them seems drier and drier. “What are the ends?” he asks, to which Walker immediately replies, “I can’t remember.”

So again, the political aspect will either heighten your appreciation of Walker or it very well may sour it, depending on whether you find Cox to be earnest or overbearing in the depth of his unsubtle satire. I submit that the character of William Walker alone, shorn of all the directorial “slight of hand” on Cox’s part, is one that can’t be ignored.  “Clearly,” as another character remarks, “this is no ordinary asshole.”

Child of God (2014)

Welcome to Review Basket! Reviewbasket? Different title altogether? Probably. Yes! But for now, let’s start doing what we’re here to do – namely, churning out quick reviews of every movie on the freakin’ planet.

I know you’re thinking A brand spanking new movie review site simply MUST start with James Franco’s latest film Child of God, and so it shall. Anyone familiar with the seemingly frantic shuffling of personalities calling itself “James Franco” will almost immediately recognize Child of God as a work by degree-holding Lit-Crit As I Lay Dying Franco, rather than fuck-the-po-lice Pineapple Express Franco. That much is obvious, but the question is whether or not it makes Child of God any more enticing or worthwhile.

And the answer: sorta. Sorta kinda. CoG is a much more controlled effort than Franco’s As I Lay Dying, partly due to the nature of the books from which these films are adapted and partly, I think, I hope, due to the fact that Franco is learning how to actually direct a movie. It helps that Scott Haze plays Lester Ballard, the heart, soul, and entirety of the movie, and he’s so spot-on creepy that for the majority of the runtime it probably didn’t matter who was behind the camera.

I’ve no doubt that Franco understands the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and yet bringing it to the screen and representing that understanding on film seems to be another matter altogether. The novel retains value today not only because of shock value but because of, among other things, a dichotomous representation of Lester: Lester himself is dregs, despicable, disgusting, cast out, but the writing that he lives in is elevated, beautiful, nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all. Franco’s directing is getting better, I think, but it’s hardly on par with what we’ve just described. One of the opening shots of the film is of Lester painfully going to the bathroom and wiping his ass with a stick, which we’re treated to in great detail from a rearward angle. Shocking, yes, representative of Lester’s condition, yes, but hardly elevated or beautiful or nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all.

Overall, Child of God is worth a watch for Haze’s performance alone. The book is perhaps one of McCarthy’s lesser-known novels, even among his early “Appalachian” set of efforts, and it doesn’t approach the genius of McCarthy’s later efforts in Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy. Let’s hope Franco doesn’t get ahold of any of those.