It is a cinematic blunt instrument, wielded with contempt and pessimism about the entire American System. Andrew Dominik wants to be very, very sure that you know precisely what he’s saying, and in the process does his film a massive disservice.
Social commentary can be a tricky thing. Come on too softly and it gets lost in the larger strokes of the film. Be too overt and it can be distracting. Dominik’s film falls into the latter camp, to an almost shocking degree.
His previous film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” is one of the best films of the last decade, a true classic and an honest-to-goodness masterpiece. So I suppose you could pin my disappointment in part on high expectations, but some this movie’s flaws are just too big to ignore.
One of the most glaring is that I can’t really tell you who this movie is about. We open with Frankie (Scoot McNairy) agreeing to take a job robbing an underground poker game protected by the local mob. Frankie’s a nobody.
He’s not a screw up but he doesn’t really have a name for himself. He’s eager to get some cash despite the risk of hitting a mob game and so brings along his heroin-addict buddy, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). Russell, however, is a screw up. So even though the two successfully pull off the heist, Russell’s big mouth quickly gets the two of them in hot water.
It’s not only that they stole from a mob protected game, it’s that their brash act could result in other two-bit thugs getting the bright idea to start robbing similar games, thus destabilizing the local mob economy.
Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Jackie is an enforcer, and a particularly skilled one at that. He can track down just about anyone, anywhere, and so the locals bring him in to find Frankie and Russell, as well as the guys responsible for putting them up to the job.
Oh, and James Gandolfini also shows up as a hitman who’s too drunk and too busy hiring hookers to actually pull off a hit. His scenes are entertaining but you could excise them from the movie entirely and it’d never miss a beat.
Once Jackie comes into the picture, Frankie mostly fades into the background until the beginning of the third act or so and Jackie essentially carries the film. It hurts that neither are particularly engaging. We learn a bit about who Jackie is, his cynicism is fairly obvious and he’s frustrated by the way these childish thugs go about their business, but for the most part, Jackie comes across as cold and indifferent. A character doesn’t have to be likable to be a strong lead, but he does need to be interesting, something I never really found Jackie to be in a substantial manner.
Then again, Dominik isn’t really interested in characters or even necessarily insight. He’s out to say one thing and one thing only: America’s politicians and the crooks who crashed our economy in the latter part of the last decade are no different than the crooks and mobsters who plague the streets.
If that wasn’t already obvious from the way Dominik has pretty much everyone in the vicinity of a radio or television constantly watching or listening to political news broadcasts, or huge political billboards touting John McCain and Barack Obama running for president, he has a character pretty much state it outright just before the credits roll. I can’t think of another movie in recent memory where the director trusted his audience less than Dominik does here.
I’ve ragged on this a lot, but there are definitely good points. Pitt does a solid job even as sparsely as Jackie is written overall. Visually it pales in comparison to “Jesse James,” but then again most films do. It’s still shot well and Dominik’s musical choices and overall aesthetic work well.
The supporting cast is pretty great, too. Gandolfini really does sort of steal the show, even if his character is pointless. Ray Liotta shows up as the fall guy who gets hit first in the wake of the robbery and does a solid job as the film’s patsy. Richard Jenkins’ role is small and mostly thankless, but he’s Richard Jenkins which means he’s automatically my favorite thing on the screen at any time during his appearances. Oh and Sam Shepard shows up for like two seconds but it’s always a treat watching that guy no matter what he does.
In the end I didn’t hate this so much as I was left cold and indifferent toward it. There’s very little to attach one’s self to and the blunt delivery of the message only further served to alienate me from what was going on.