It’s been 5 years since Andrew Dominik’s last feature, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD came out. I really liked that movie. I admired its deliberate slow pace. I’ve only seen it once, but I have a feeling that if I see it again I’m going to LOVE it. It really stuck with me. I still haven’t seen his first film, CHOPPER, which I heard is amazing. I was really looking forward to his newest film, which is based on a 1970’s novel titled Cogan’s Trade (which in my opinion, would have been a better title for the film).
The movie opens with 2 low-life thugs, Frankie and Russell, planning to rip-off a high stakes card game run by the mafia. You see, the guy running it, Markie, robbed his own card game before and if it’s robbed again, they figure he would be blamed and knocked off. Easy as pie. But of course it goes wrong. The heist itself is actually successful, going off without a hitch. But Russell, who’s a hardcore junkie, brags about the robbery to someone and word gets out. The mob sends out an enforcer named Jackie, who gets his orders from a mafia representative. Jackie doesn’t want to kill all involved (4 people total) by himself, so convinces the mob to fly in an expert assassin, Mickey for assistance. But Jackie soon discovers that Mickey is not the killer he used to be.
If this synopsis seems a little jagged, then you have a good idea how the movie plays out. Jagged. Before I go into the negative, I must admit how taken I was by the first 30 minutes. This is pretty much before Brad Pitt’s Jackie even enters the flick. This first portion is the planning and execution of the heist. The opening titles are really jarring. The opening shot is an out of focus image of a man walking and then BAM! a white title pops up over a black screen accompanied by a loud shrieking sound that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a supernatural horror film. It goes back and forth like this for over a minute. It really jars the viewer, and I LOVED it. It made me scoot to the edge of my seat. Then we see Frankie and Russell meeting their boss about the upcoming heist. These first moments are dialogue heavy, but really rich. It’s weird. I would compare the dialogue to this year’s SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS but the pacing of the movie is closer to something like last year’s DRIVE. The characters talk about insignificant things like what their last sexual encounter was like, or pulling a job with a bunch of shitting dogs in a car. It’s funny, but there’s still a dark tone looming over the proceedings. The heist itself is done very well, with no musical score, just natural sounds. It really made this extended sequence intense. And since they’re ripping off a bunch of mafia men, you don’t know if any of them are going to pull out their guns. It’s pretty suspenseful.
The film is never that good again. But there’s still some worthwhile things. The second portion is Jackie planning the hits. This proves to be harder than he thought since James Gandolfini’s Mickey turns out to be a hooker addicted drunk. While I really liked the scenes between Gandolfini and Mickey (they’re full of great character development), but the more I thought about those sequences, the more I realized that I felt they were unnecessary. I’m sure there may be more to these scenes than what’s on the surface, I just didn’t see them. Mickey could have been cut out of the movie completely and he wouldn’t have been missed (though the movie would have been under 90 minutes then). He wasn’t really crucial at all. It was almost like the character was there just so we could see Gandolfini act his ass off in 2 scenes. He’s great, but I found the inclusion of Mickey to be a bit pointless.
The film kind of lost me in the last third. While the technical direction was mostly good throughout, I found the structure to be a bit of a mess. It starts off focusing on Frankie and Russell, and then they practically disappear for the entire middle section. I was actually starting to like those guys too, especially Frankie. But then it becomes about Jackie. But no, then it becomes about Mickey. Then it goes back to Jackie. Now, Jackie isn’t a bad character, but I found him a bit empty. I know he’s not supposed to have much to him, but I didn’t really find him all that interesting. He’s supposed to be this jaded hitman, but we don’t spend enough time with him to sympathize. That’s how I felt about everyone in the movie. The whole thing should have been about an hour longer so we could get to know all the characters better. The movie switches focal points too often (for long stretches) that I didn’t get engaged by any of the characters. Which is a shame, cause the film is masterfully directed and has some great performances.
Brad Pitt doesn’t show up until the 23 minute mark, and he doesn’t draw too much attention to himself. He does a solid job, but it’s nothing special. He keeps it pretty low-key which is how Jackie is supposed to be. Like I said earlier, Gandolfini gives a great performance as Mickey. His heart has been broken by his past wife, he realizes that his life is shit and just lets himself go. It’s a fascinating, cynical performance. I just wish his character had more to do with the actual story. Richard Jenkins is reliable as usual as Jackie’s contact. Ray Liotta surprisingly underplays his portrayal of Markie, and is quite effective. The two best performances of the movie however come from unknown actors. Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell is a sad character. He looks terrible. He’s dirty, sweaty and in desperate need of a bath. He’s a cynical junkie and Mendelsohn hits all the right notes. My favorite actor in the movie is Scoot McNairy as Frankie. He’s easily the most sympathetic character of the film. I’ve heard a couple of other critics dismiss him because he gives his character a kind of whiny voice, speaking an octave higher than her normally does. But it’s not a one-note performance. His scenes toward the end with Pitt are fantastic. There’s a moment when Pitt is sitting next to him at a bar and starts a conversation without knowing who he is. Then when McNairy finds out just who Pitt is, he acts the shit out of that scene, even outshining the “great” Brad Pitt. I was impressed.
Andrew Dominik clearly has a distinctive style. In fact, it’s a kind of style that I LOVE in cinema. It’s that kind of slow-burn approach. Some people call it too slow, but I love it. There was lots of great steadicam work, not to mention some expertly crafted scenes of strong violence. The only moment I didn’t care for direction-wise was a moment when Pitt kills someone in slow motion. I get why they did it (he’s killing him softly, like the title) but it’s very CGI heavy. I’m not a very big fan of that. If it’s in a fantasy film or something like that, it makes more sense. But when a film is grounded in a gritty reality, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It looked like it was a scene from THE MATRIX, and it just didn’t sit well with me. But the rest of the direction is fantastic! The script is where I have the biggest issues. I like the dialogue a lot. That’s written well. It’s the structure. There’s no one to latch on to. It should have been about Frankie, and that’s how the movie starts off, but when he disappeared for 40 minutes, I kind of lost interest in the story. He was my “in”. I should mention the sound design… While there really isn’t much of a score here (there are nicely placed depression-era songs throughout), the sound is a crucial part of the movie. Just the way certain sounds are brought out gives the viewer a certain sense of uneasiness. It’s great work and should be recognized come Oscar time.
Movies like this frustrate me. There are many moments of genius to be found here, but the movie is just too uneven for me to recommend as a whole. If you would have asked what I thought of the movie 30 minutes in, I would have said it’s the best film of the year so far. But then it lost its way for me. Some people are going to love this movie, and admire how it makes political comparisons to its plot. That was clever, but I really needed all of the characters to be more drawn out. It’s well crafted and features some impressive performances, but it just didn’t cook all the proper ingredients together correctly. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.
– Running time: 1hr 37min.