Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
Thank goodness for literal titles. Otherwise I might be at a loss to ascertain just what exactly Eat Pray Love is about. Had I been without those three guiding verbs I might have suspected it to be about a forlorn earth-bound angel played by Julia Roberts who travels the world eliciting pearls of wisdom from charming impoverished locals in an effort to earn back her wings. It’s certainly the impression conveyed by the film’s director Ryan Murphy who takes great care to ensure that his ethereal star is never without her amber halo as she floats about in a soft-focus glow. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and slurping up a pile of spaghetti in Italy. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and meditating at an ashram in India. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and charming a toothless medicine man in Bali.
In actuality Roberts plays not a fallen seraph but the very human Elizabeth Gilbert upon whose bestselling memoir the film is based. A successful writer Liz is plagued by nagging doubts about her life’s direction which culminate in a terrifying middle-of-the-night realization that she is in fact desperately unhappy and in need of drastic change. Being a proactive gal she takes immediate action dumping her aimless doofus of a husband (Billy Crudup) and taking up with vapid young actor (James Franco). But his chiseled features and new-age aphorisms fail to relieve her existential languor and so she opts for more drastic measures pulling up stakes entirely and embarking on a year-long sojourn abroad in which she eats prays and loves in that precise order in a quest for self-discovery.
It’s a common cliche to say that a certain city or country is a character in a film shot on location but in the case of Eat Pray Love the settings of Italy India and Bali are not only characters they’re the most interesting characters of the entire ensemble. Which says less about the talents of the film’s cinematographer Robert Richardson than it does about the failings of its director and co-writer Murphy. The lone face that manages to stand out among the lackluster crowd is the always sublime Richard Jenkins who plays an unctuous Texan encountered by Roberts’ meandering malcontent during the "pray" portion of her journey. A sort of Hindu Dr. Phil he plies Liz with plain-spoken spiritual advice that helps to finally wrest her from her malaise.
And what exactly is Liz so sad about? Certainly her old life doesn’t appear all that worth mourning a sentiment inadvertently reinforced by flashbacks to difficult moments in her life which frankly appear more awkward than painful. As far as I could tell her principal emotional burdens are: 1) guilt over her entirely reasonable decision to divorce her doofus husband and 2) regret over her other entirely reasonable decision to ditch the vapid actor who never seemed more than just a brisk rebound fling.
If there’s more to Liz than just a pleasant mildly interesting girl faced a few tricky but eminently solvable issues Murphy isn’t able to convey it. (He does however succeed in finding a dozen different ways to photograph a bowl of spaghetti which I suppose is a kind of accomplishment.) Liz’s journey in Eat Pray Love never feels like more than just a lovely vacation the kind of thing usually commemorated in a Facebook photo album to be perused for a few minutes or so certainly not in a massively expensive (an exact budget number is suspiciously difficult to find) enormously tedious two-hour travelogue.
I say "creepy" because Untraceable’s theory could actually be a reality. The possibility of a tech-savvy psycho setting up a Web site that displays graphic murders could happen with the fate of each of the tormented captives left in the hands of the public: The more hits the site gets the faster the victims die--and in the case of Untraceable die in very gruesome ways. Of course Untraceable also gives us a peek at the good guys--the FBI division that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is one such Internet expert who along with her co-worker (Colin Hanks) is stymied by KillWithMe.com’s untraceablity. But soon the movie turns predictable as the cat-and-mouse game gets personal and Marsh must race against the clock to stop the madman. Lane has certainly looked better in her past movies. For obvious effect they’ve made Agent Marsh rather worn-down with dark circles under her eyes and very little makeup as she sits in front of the computer hunting the bad guys all night on the late shift. The fact that she’s also a widow having lost her cop husband to the job and caregiver to her young daughter doesn’t help the woman get anymore rest. Then when the crap starts hitting the fan and people close to Marsh get hurt the actress really shows the pain on her already haggard face. Marsh even admits “I do a lot of things well but I don’t lose people well.” It’s a standard tough-FBI-agent role and Lane is very capable at it. Supporting her is Hanks (Orange County) as the resident comic relief (what little of it there is) as well as Billy Burke (Fracture) the local cop trying to help Marsh catch the psycho Internet killer. As for the killer himself the actor who portrays him (and I won’t give it away) is very effective in the role. There are a couple of other things Untraceable has going for it besides the chilling premise: director Gregory Hoblit who knows his way around a crime thriller having directed gems such as Primal Fear and Fracture and the dank Portland Oregon locale. Hoblit creates just the right amount of tension and dread as the clock ticks down and the race nears its end but something about an overcast rainy environ just lends itself to more doom and gloom doesn’t it? Of course there are also the torture scenes which add a certain level of Hostel-like horror. What Untraceable lacks is a compelling narrative. The bevy of writers involved (never the best of signs) tend to throw in too many conventional thriller plot points--like the red herrings on who the killer is before he’s revealed and explaining why the killer is doing what he’s doing. All these things dilute the film’s initial potential. Still let’s just hope this doesn’t spawn real-life copycats.