Since 1982, a company called CinemaScore have been going along to US cinemas and gauging audience reactions to new releases. As these polls are carried out on a film’s opening day, the audience is recognised as being slightly more enthusiastic than the average, but it’s scores – at least at the top end – are considered to be pretty accurate; virtually every film awarded the top mark of an A+ goes on to huge box office (and/or critical) success.
Such is the audience’s fervour in fact, that anything below a C is generally considered a failure. With that in mind, a movie that earns itself an F has gotta blow like a whirlwind, right?
Well, no, not really.
In fact only 8 films have ever received the dreaded F and – judging by the five of those I’ve seen at least – it may actually be a compliment (albeit an unintended and slightly back-handed one). I mean, Oz horror Wolf Creek (2005) is a great little film, taut and chilling and last year’s wonderfully tense Silent House remake featured a new high watermark in playing scared from Elizabeth Olsen; her gasping performance alone made the film way more worthy of your time than Slasherface Summer Camp 7 or some such dreck. Richard Kelly’s 2009 Cameron Diaz flick The Box builds well before losing it at the end, but is it really one of the 8 worst films ever made? (It’s not even Kelly’s worst film – I mean, have you seen Southland Tales?) And Soderbergh’s Solaris remake (2002) is no-one’s idea of fun but come on, an F? Really?
The most recent film to fail CinemaScore’s public test is Australian director Andrew Dominik’s latest, Killing Them Softly. Reviews were mostly of the “it’s OK, but…” variety and, with a worldwide box office haul of only $35m to go alongside that F, the public clearly voted against it. So is it really one of the worst films ever made?
Of course not. But I think it’s clear what’s going on here, at least from the CinemaScore point of view and it’s bad news. Those 8 aren’t terrible films, they’re not even close: instead, these are all films that are not the typical exercise in genre cinema that they appeared to be to a first day audience, wrong-footed as they were by misleading advertising campaigns.
These F’s are a badge of the audience’s disappointment in not being spoon-fed yet more Hollywood factory bullshit, audiences angry at having found themselves sitting in front of films that – I hate to suggest it – required more thought than their lying posters and deceptively cut trailers had led them to believe (although whether or not that also applies to the three F grade films I haven’t seen – Darkness , Bug  and The Devil Inside  – is another matter). And, while it could be argued that it’s almost entirely irrelevant to Killing Them Softly’s poor box office showing (after all, no-one ever says, “I’m not going to see that, it’s CinemaScore was too low!”) at least half of the F grade films certainly serve as a sad reminder of the declining standard of what we accept – and, more worryingly, demand – as entertainment today. Intelligent films with adult themes – The Godfather, The Exorcist – were box office smashes in their day and while, on one hand, the success of intelligent, mainstream movies such as Argo and Lincoln show that the general public haven’t quite forgotten how to appreciate a film that requires them to pay attention, I am also, on the other, desperately unable to forget that the last Transformers movie made over a billion dollars at the box office…
Andrew Dominik’s third film, Killing Them Softly (originally called Cogan’s Trade after the George V. Higgins novel it’s based on and – sorry – but I hate the new title) finds him working once more with paid-face-turned-actor Brad Pitt. The last time they worked together, on 2007′s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Pitt delivered a career best performance; this time around, as if determined to prove it was no fluke, he’s back at the top of his game again as Jackie Cogan, a gangster called in to investigate the robbery of a mob card game. And Dominik has surrounded his star with a top notch cast, all in great form; James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta and Argo’s Scoot McNairy all give this movie a true heavyweight feel (although – as good as everyone is – special mention has to go to Ben Mendelsohn for his funny turn as sleazy, repellent, junkie low-life, Russell). So, Brad as a leather jacket gangster alongside Tony fuggin Soprano himself… What’s not to like? Why the low score?
Well, as far as I can tell, there was one key criticism of this film: Two punky little gangsters hold up a mob card game; scared of being robbed again, the mob suspends all games until the culprits are caught. This effectively crashes the local (gangster) economy so the mob – via bureaucrat Richard Jenkins – employs Brad to find the robbers, restore the “Public” trust and thus rescue the economy. You see what’s going on here? It’s an allegory. It’s a gangster film but it’s really about the credit crunch. Now, the problem as (virtually all) reviewers saw it, is in Dominik’s use of news clips to score almost every scene; people in the cars have their radios on, listening to financial news, TV’s in bars and houses are tuned into the election coverage (the film is set during the presidential election of 2008), it’s just everywhere. “America is not a country” says Pitt at one point, “it’s a business.” Critics cried foul saying Dominik was being way too heavy handed; “Yes, we get it” they cried, “enough!” But The Assassination of Jesse James… was one of the most beautifully subtle films to feature a major Hollywood star of the last 20 years; quiet, brooding and melancholy it was a work of great maturity by a filmmaker who clearly didn’t need to be told not to over-do anything. Could he really have lost his understanding of restraint to this degree and in such a short space of time?
I believe he was after something else. Maybe he wanted to represent the omnipresent buzz of fear and dread that accompanies a time in which jobs are uncertain, in which homes and lives are just one paycheck away from disaster. Or maybe it’s just a device to underline how talk without action is pointless and ineffectual (Cogan offers them a simple – if blunt – solution to their problem early on but his employers balk at it, exchanging an unpleasant fix now for a longer period of suffering). I don’t know. What I do know is that, while it genuinely is used a hell of a lot in the film, the voice-over device just didn’t anger me the way it seemed to anger everyone else; in fact it felt to me like Dominik was using the news as other director’s would have used music and, more to the point, I felt like he had prepared me for this unusual approach to the aural side of his film from the very beginning (as the film opens, the soundtrack cuts back and forth between two distinctly different sound-sets, abruptly and without warning, lending the opening moments a queasy, edgy feeling). Even the end credits play out over street sounds, voices, cars, etc. and not the expected composer’s score; it should be clear to anyone with their ears open that Killing Them Softly’s sound design was something very carefully planned and not just the result of a lack of subtlety in the edit suite.
One thing Dominik could be accused of though is having his cake and eating it; in a lot of respects this is an anti-gangster film (that is to say it’s a film that goes against most gangster movie conventions). In fact, Killing Them Softly generally goes out of its way not to give you what you expect at all – hence, I guess, the catastrophic CinemaScore. Gangster cinema is the one genre most often criticised for glorifying it’s characters and their lifestyles but, boy, Pitt aside maybe, you really wouldn’t look up to any of these guys, let alone want to be them. This is the most wretched bunch of low level hoodlums seen on screen since Al Pacino tracksuited his way through Donnie Brasco back in 1997, all slumped shoulders and bad jewellery, busting open parking meters for change. I mean, these guys are just not cool. In fact, they seem to be scrabbling around on the margins of the “organised” crime world simply because they clearly wouldn’t cut it in the real world of wives and children, jobs and pensions. And Dominik just starts his genre-busting from here and works outward. An out of towner is called in to handle a key hit but, flying in the face of mob movie convention (because the out of town hitman is always an ice-cold muthafucka), the guy turns out to be useless, pissy and mostly drunk, unable to fulfil even what’s required of him. Another character – whose innocence has already been established – is ordered killed simply for the way it will look to the other gangsters; his death will send the message that control has been restored and the panic is over, darkly underlining that – in this movie at least – the world of the mob is as much about public perception and the illusion of control as the so-called legitimate worlds of business and high finance its structure is aping.
Still, beautifully (and frequently) subverting genre conventions aside, Dominik – channelling the side of himself that made the hyper-stylised Chopper rather than the dreamy, funereal Assassination… – still has a fair few bravura sequences up his sleeve; the ruthless beating of a central character is astonishingly brutal and the “whacking” of another character, presented in ultra-super-slo mo, is a beautiful aerial ballet of flying glass and blood. There are a few sequences that you quite legitimately expect to see in a film of this type and – when Dominik decides to let go of his anti-cliché stance long enough to indulge in a spot of the old ultra-violence – it’s thrilling; they are presented thoughtfully, powerfully and, most excitingly, with an air of invention and originality unseen in mob movies since Scorsese first stepped out onto the streets of Little Italy. Don’t believe the mob. Killing Them Softly was sorely overlooked at the cinema; hopefully it will find a home on DVD and Blu Ray and take its rightful position as one of 2012′s best films.
Killing Them Softly is available on DVD and Blu Ray now