Cannes 2012: Day 7 – ‘Killing Them Softly’ + ‘Holy Motors’

I’ve noted the relative abundance of American productions in Competition at this year’s Cannes Film festival in a prior dispatch. But if that wasn’t curious enough, the programmers here have made the interesting decision of screening a majority of these during the last half of the festival. In fact, beginning with Wednesday’s premiere of Killing Them Softly, the final five Competition screenings are all products of the States, albeit made in some cases by foreign directors. There’s been disgruntled chatter about why these, for the most part, highly anticipated films have been scheduled in this manner, as many critics leave the fest a number of days prior to the official closing ceremony. Because of this, and considering the gradual increase in quality these last couple days, this seemed to have all the makings of a backloaded festival, whereas most Cannes line-ups reveal the goods straight away. But following the unfortunate concessions of Lawless — and bracing for the impending critical darts aimed squarely at both On the Road and The Paperboy — a lot was riding on Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik’s anticipated return to the director’s chair after a five-year pause following 2007’s contemporary classic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

That it instead registers as perhaps the biggest disappointment of festival so far for me should be taken with a bit of perspective, though. I have almost zero expectations for On the Road and The Paperboy, and had only slightly more for Lawless. Killing Them Softly, on the other hand, has been growing in anticipation with me from the moment I saw Jesse James for the first time a half-decade ago. One of the great under-appreciated masterworks of the aughts, Jesse James saw the Australian-bred Dominik take a leap into sensory, sensual cinematic dream-weaving. To this day it stands as probably the artiest Western ever made, an impressionistic, Terrence Malick-spawned epic that made zero concessions and, unfortunately, brought in even less box office dollars. It makes perfect sense why star Brad Pitt would want to continue the collaboration, Dominik having facilitated perhaps the most impressive performance of his career. And Pitt does get another nice role here, juicier and pulpier but just as hazardous, working a genre vein — in the this case, the mob flick — that could easily fall into parody.

That Pitt emerges from the film as perhaps the only one unscathed from such pitfalls is testament to the roll the guy’s been on since his first collaboration with Dominik, but just as often works to accentuate the divide between many of the other half-formed characters, who don’t receive the acting vessels necessary to transcend the written word. And it’s those words — an amalgam of interestingly offhand, mostly vulgar observations and cliched-riddled crime speak — coupled with Dominik’s oddly fussy stylistic strokes that hinder a film that may have otherwise been able to stand respectfully enough on it’s plot. When Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is called in by the mob to clean up the damage resulting from a poker heist, Killing Me Softly appears to be gaining back a bit of the traction it sacrifices during a 20-plus-minute opening volley of scenes which trace the origin of the theft via two dimwitted gangsters, who spend most of their time getting drunk, high, or otherwise telling drunken, altered anecdotes which do little more than draw attention away from the story.

Meanwhile, Ray Liotta has a small, thankless role because, well, he’s Ray Liotta and he’s in every mob film. Ditto James Gandolfini, who takes a ton of one-dimensional dialogue and milks it to maximum effect, proving how difficult it can be to convincingly play such a sleazy, flashy character — unsurprisingly, when either he or Pitt are offscreen, the film’s energy lags. What made Jesse James so unique is how it inverted archetypes and built it’s style outward from these anti-Western conceits. Killing Them Softly instead take conventions, heightens them, and splashes a lot of showy effects and hollow stylistic affectations over top, ultimately lacking the soul that seeped naturally from Jesse James’ pores. Let’s hope it doesn’t take an equally lengthy amount of time for Dominik to rebound from his latest effort; sometimes jumping right back into the fold is the quickest way to both temper expectations and cloud the memory of a recent disappointment.

If five years seems like a long time to wait for any director’s newest film, think how Leo Carax must feel 13 years on from his last work, Pola X. Never the most prolific director anyway — he’s now made six films in 28 years — Carax has been unusually methodical with the production of his films considering most aren’t more technically ambitious than other more understandable passion projects. His return to feature filmmaking with the stupidifying, wildly creative, possibly terrible Holy Motors was one of the Cannes Film Festival’s most anticipated returns, and judging by the waves of applause that greeted the film as the credits began to roll, his French brethren are ready to welcome him back with open arms.

In a sense, Holy Motors is exactly the kind of film 13 years worth of build up is meant explode forth with, every whim, idea, dream, and nightmare utilized in an effort at realizing the ultimate Leos Carax film. Holy Motors, therefore, is like the secular inversion of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (last year’s Palm d’Or winner, though I don’t think the film has much going for it besides Carax’s prodigal son status), hazardously ambitious, blindly creative, and almost overwhelming in the sheer amount of bonkers ideas presented. Problem is, Holy Motors doesn’t really seem to have a whole lot to say, at least from what I can tell on a single viewing. Tracing a 24-hour period in the life of a unidentifiable would-be mercenary, the film stars Denis Lavant in a wonderful, nearly silent performance wherein he’s tasked to travel to nine different locations to perform nine different tasks — some violent, some innocent, others ambiguous and more than a little out-there — in an array of varying make-up designs and costumes. As a showcase for a great actor given a meaty, flamboyant part, Holy Motors is fascinating and compulsively watchable.

In most all other ways it’s an epic flailing at transcendence, with every good idea standing side by side with a horrendous one in a patterned narrative that eventually renders designation between the actual quality of each presentation null and void. Holy Motors essentially exists outside of criticism, as vivd right brain squiggles spew forth on the screen in concentrated abandon. It’s difficult to paraphrase the film or do it justice in a way that actually viewing the thing will accomplish in alternately warped and inscrutable fashion (though if you’re familiar with Carax’s short film contribution the 2008 omnibus film, Tokyo!, you’ll already be familiar with the Lavant character). Therefore, a brief list of things you’ll find in Holy Motors: motion-capture acts of violence and sensuality, a demon-spawned leprechaun, Eva Mendes, talking limousines, Dungeons & Dragons-like animation, a family of emotionally yearning chimpanzees, blood splattered suicide victims, mid-scene musical numbers, and, ‘cause why not, Kylie Minogue. In the end, the film is an admirably bold, unfortunately scatterbrained flushing of the id. Watching Holy Motors, more so than I can say about quite a few of the films I’ve seen at Cannes this year, I was never bored — merely baffled. For better or worse, Holy Motors should end up the fest’s most singularly zany creation.