A Tale of Two Subtexts
I've been meaning to review these two film, which at first glance appear to be unsuitable bedfellows. But they share curious commonalities that justify this double review. They're both the third features from acclaimed directors: Killing Them Softly sees Andrew Dominik returning to the director's chair after 2007's Assassination of Jesse James..., while The Tall Man is Pascal Laugier feverishly anticipated follow-up to cult favourite Martyrs. They're both deceptively generic films that play hard and loose with formula and expectations. They both attempt to layer their respective narratives with contemporary social commentary. And they're both disappointing, although to varying degrees.
Killing Them Softly takes place during the 2008 American presidential election. The inciting incident is a robbery in which two hapless goons for hire (indie darlings Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knock over a card game. Hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) is brought on board to sort out the mess, although is forced to call in old-school assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help out due to a personal connection with one of the perpetrators. The Tall Man, meanwhile, casts Jessica Biel as Julia, a free clinic doctor in a rapidly decaying rural American town. The town's economic woes aren't helped by the fact that children are disappearing without trace, purportedly being abducted by the eponymous Tall Man (no relation to Slender Man, unfortunately). As is often the way with potentially supernatural happenings in smalltown America, things aren't what they seem.
KTS first. There is much to like about the film, particularly the uniformly interesting performances. McNairy and Mendelsohn make for two convincing deadbeats, while Pitt - spewing cigarette smoke at every opportunity - is his usual effortlessly charismatic self. Worthy support from the likes of Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins is equally strong. Gandolfini is treated to the strongest character, however: his depressed, alcoholic assassin is a compelling riff on his Tony Soprano archetype. As is to be expected from an extremely visual director such as Laugier, it's a stylish film, particularly during a handful of setpieces. The taut card game robbery is a fine exercise in tension and suspense as violence threatens to erupt as the thieves grow increasingly nervous.
Alas, the film suffers from what I have just now dubbed as the 'Inglorious Basterds' effect, in which generally well-written dialogues drag on for too long for rarely convincing reasons. It's a purposeful pacing decision, albeit which ultimately doesn't really work. It's nothing, however, compared to the heavy-handed political subtext. Subtext is inaccurate, actually, since the film frequently stops dead in its tracks so that the Australian Dominik can hammer home his cynical commentary on modern America. News shows are constantly blaring in the back and foregrounds to remind us that, for all the hopeful rhetoric offered during Obama's campaign, nothing has really changed. It's still a society driven by corruption, greed and potential financial gain, which exasperates an already uneven class divide. It's an admirable, well-intentioned - although not particularly insightful - message marred by condescending execution. There's even a few scenes where characters awkwardly stop talking so we can hear the radio chatter. It mars what otherwise is an interesting but flawed gangster flick. If the political content had been handled more elegantly, this could have been a contender.
It comes off well against the appalling The Tall Man, however. That is a film almost entirely devoid of worth. It, like Martyrs, does at least try to do something new with traditional horror formula. Watch the trailer and you'll be forgiven for presuming it's just another psychopath in the woods film. For the first half of the film, it appears that's going to be the case. It then buys a one way ticket to crazy town, and fails completely.
Even on basic technical terms, The Tall Man is unsuccessful. Perhaps it's just the HD transfer leaving a nasty digital look, but this in its home release at least appears to be a badly-made film: looking like it was just haphazardly blanket-lit and ungraded, the cinematography is consistently ugly and strangely uncinematic. The acting is little to write home about, although Biel at least has some sort of screen presence, albeit not necessarily a presence that always suits the film.
But it's the second half of the story when the film grows increasingly ridiculous. Pure intentions count for little as ludicrous plot twists pile-up. The requisite social contexts are introduced through silly monologues, voiceovers and, embarrassingly, a final shot that breaks the fourth wall in an hilariously dreadful way. Worse, the underlying message of the film is at best heavy-handed, at worst semi-insulting, and maybe even completely hypocritical. Is this an anti-adoption thriller? Or pro-adoption? A socialist deconstruction of class division? An allegorical commentary on the collapse of rural society? A more simple attempt to incite debate? Laugier seems uncertain, and the result is a mess of bad ideas that do not gel together into a convincing argument or even a compelling story. Indeed, the tale's twists & turns render much of what came before borderline nonsensical (including an extended chase sequence that is rendered absurd through through subsequent revelations).
Both films suffer from what should be thoughtful subtexts being awkwardly verbalised at length in unsubtle ways. It's as if neither director trusts the audience to decipher their films' underlying messages. This condescension unfortunately fatally damages The Tall Man, and does its best to discredit Dominik's good work in other areas of Killing Them Softly. Both are arthouse films in mainstream genre clothing, which would usually be a cause for celebration and acclaim. While it's undeniable that both directors do at least have the ambition and bravery to subvert expectations, the resulting films suffer through inelegant execution.