The Angels' Share
Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins, William Ruane, Roger Allam, Siobhan Reilly
(Entertainment One, Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch)
Killing Them Softly
Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta, Max Casella, Sam Shepard
The Angels’ Share, Ken Loach’s latest film in Cannes Competition, begins with his signature mixture of humor, social commentary, and attention to peculiar details of British working-class life. Snapshots of sentences delivered on young delinquents at Glasgow Sheriff Court, indicate the range of their offences, from criminal stupidity and desecration of monuments, to petty theft and unavoidable but brutal self-defense. The recipients of these sentences—Robbie (Paul Brannigan), Mo (Jasmin Riggins), Albert (Gary Maitland), and Rhino (William Ruane)—will go on to bond during their community service.
Robbie is trapped. He has neither money nor job, but he does have a new sentence for severely beating a man. It appears that Robbie gets into such troubles repeatedly, owing to his frustrations and drug use, not to mention a longtime feud between his family and that of his girlfriend Leone (Siobhan Reilly), who is determined that their newborn son will escape his father’s violent life. In community service, Robbie befriends Harry (John Henshaw), an amiable and fatherly boss, who introduces him to malt whiskey, then invites him and his buddies on a fancy whiskey-tasting trip out of town. Robbie discovers his own talent for distinguishing whisky brands by smell and cooks up a plan to swap the contents of a few bottles for an expensive malt. The gang dresses up in kilts and, with ample food supply and camp gear, thumb their way to the whisky auction, steal the liquor, and sell it to a pretentious connoisseur, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), for an exorbitant price.
Loach offsets the difficulties of Robbie’s rather bleak world with hilarious wordplay and slapstick. Maitland is especially funny as the ignorant but witty Albert, who has never heard of the Mona Lisa or Albert Einstein, but points out at the exactly right time that scarcity raises the value of goods. The specificity of their background was underscored at Cannes, where the young men’s thick Scottish accents led Festival officials to insist, against the filmmakers’ wishes, on showing the film with English subtitles, and in England, the film’s release rating was affected by its foul language.
The context for such abrasive authenticities is hinted at in the movie’s title: the “angels’ share” refers to the 2% of whisky in a cask that evaporates during storage, as well as the share of wealth that are owed to the working-class thieves, seeing as the malt auction buyers, and, by extension, the British upper classes, possess so much.
Killing Them Softly
Much like The Angels’ Share, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, the director’s first film in Cannes Competition, features scatterbrained thieves and clever fast-paced dialogue. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade, it is set in 2008, during both the US economic crisis and presidential election. When a pair of amateur thieves, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), disrupt an underground poker game, fixer Jackie (Brad Pitt, sporting shaggy hair and dark glasses) is hired to find and eliminate the culprits.
The film poaches from The Sopranos’ cast, including James Gandolfini as Mickey, a lecherous and perpetually drunk contract killer from New York, and Vincent Curatola as the robbery’s planner Johnny Amato. Ray Liotta plays Markie Trattman, the card game manager who robbed the same game once before, and thus becomes a prime suspect. As in many examples of the crime genre, here the soundtrack seems a major character in itself, as familiar songs comment, often too literally, on the action (so, we hear the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” when Frankie and Russell take drugs).
Jackie is, of course, the most prominent character, and the title refers to his preferred method, to make sure his prey doesn’t see him coming, to avoid tears, pleading, and wallowing in blood. His plot is sometimes punctuated by 2008 campaign speeches by Barack Obama, which make clear the film’s political commentary, namely, its outrage at crimes concerning the American economy. Playing the Driver, Richard Jenkins personifies corporate bureaucracy in a recession; he’s a middleman who negotiates between Jackie and his unnamed “bosses,” pinching pennies on fees and travel expenses of contract killers. He thinks the line “All men are created equal” was a ploy to send Thomas Jefferson’s countrymen to war so that he could avoid paying taxes to the British. “America is not a community,” the Driver concludes, rejecting Obama’s appeals, “America is a business.” Jackie’s own dispassionate efficiency exemplifies a capitalist work ethic, one that’s missing in his opponents, pleasure-seeking stick-up men and a fellow assassin.
Killing Them Softly‘s tone is less constant than it’s protagonist’s. Dominik has said he sees the film as a comedy, but it’s also, just as often, a dark and gory drama.