What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly": Lane v. Brody v. Crouch

The most interesting aspect of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is that it’s adapted from George V. Higgins’s superb Cogan’s Trade (1974). Does the movie do justice to the novel? Three New Yorker critics provide three different perspectives.

Anthony Lane, in his “Tough Times” (The New Yorker, December 3, 2012), says, “I miss the wonderful tics with which Higgins registered word slips on the page (‘I been up since quarter five’; ‘I took Connie the movies the other night’: Somebody asked him if he knew a couple guys’; ‘Onna rocks. Olive. Right?’), but his bleakness endures onscreen.”  Lane also says that the movie “honors Higgins’s faith in the unglamorous.” In the capsule version of his review, Lane says, “Andrew Dominik has honored the novelist’s trademark blend of dirty eloquence and sudden bursts of brutality” (“The Film File,”

Richard Brody doesn’t see it that way. In “The Most Overrated Value In Moviemaking” (“The Front Row,”, November 30, 2012), he outlines the film’s plot, which is taken from Cogan’s Trade, and says, “Just summarizing the story and considering its twists is sheer delight – which makes it all the stranger that the movie that would bring it to life, doesn’t.”

Ian Crouch, in his “Words As Weapons” (“Page-Turner,”, December 5, 2012), observes, “Dominik moves the story up a few decades, to the fall of 2008, but films the novel’s plot virtually scene for scene.” He says, “Dominik repurposes much of the novel’s dialogue in the screenplay, and in a broad sense remains faithful to Higgins’s great tonal achievement, which is to reveal the essential scuzziness of hand-to-mouth criminal life.” In his opinion, Killing Them Softly is “true to the novel’s narrative but somehow false to its spirit.”

I agree with Crouch and, to a lesser degree, Brody. Brody is right when he says that the movie fails to bring the story alive. But he doesn’t dissect the reasons for that failure the way Crouch does. Crouch cuts to the core of the problem when he says, “Cogan’s Trade is not necessarily about anything, and certainly it is not a political novel.” Dominik’s folly was his decision to use Cogan’s Trade for political messaging. Lane considers this politicization a success. He says, “Yet something in the tone of Cogan, Markie, Mickey, and the rest of them does strike home  - you feel the juddering impact of low life against the high hopes on which politics and community spirit rely, and it leaves you shaking.” He puts this even more succinctly in his “Film File” review: Killing Them Softly “gradually unveils a panorama of bleakness contrasted – all too obviously – with a litany of political posters and sound bites, most of them promising a bright future that we know will never dawn.” All too obviously - the film’s political cynicism isn't subtle. Crouch calls it “clunky” (“the clunky political motif that runs through the movie”). He expresses my view when he says, “Like the filmmaker’s visual choices, the addition of this overt political theme seems meant to lend both an aesthetic gravity to the narrative and to give it some kind of ethical resonance. Yet, more than any of the other deviations that the movie makes from the novel, it is this choice—to inject meaning into a void—that is the most hollow and disappointing.”

And yet … it wouldn’t surprise me if, five, ten, fifteen years from now, Killing Them Softly is remembered, if it’s remembered at all, for the acid words that Dominik gives Brad Pitt to speak at the movie’s end (almost as if, as Brody says, Dominik handed him a cue card): “America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now pay me my fucking money.”

Credit: The above artwork is by Steve Wilson; it appears in The New Yorker (December 3, 2012) as an illustration for Anthony Lane’s “Tough Times.” 

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