Monday, December 3, 2012

George V. Higgins and Killing Them Softly


I want to argue that the brilliant George V. Higgins is a criminally-- and I use the word aptly--neglected American novelist of the first order. As Norman Mailer said about his first novel, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I paraphrase, "Who knew the fuzz (Higgins was a federal prosecutor) could write like that." He was a master of point of view and exposition revealed by brutally authentic dialogue. To not read him is to miss first rate American literary wonder and achievement. To wit:


I just saw Killing Them Softly. It didn't have a beat and you couldn't dance to it. 

Which is one of its points. 

It's a dour, sour, grim and unrelenting representation of the lower side of low lifes seemingly redeemed only by the soulless, glamorous competence of a homicidally wise and shrewd and controlled Brad Pitt as a fixer-killer. 

All about his low life sun orbit planets of weakness, unremitting violence, dumbness, degeneracy, self delusion, griminess, hypocrisy and inveterate dishonesty--even to the point of a lower of the low lifes trying to snatch the dollar tip his higher up low life boss has left for a waitress. 

Where the talk, the bountiful, great, authentic low life talk and the mean spirited action are portrayed faithfully to George V. Higgins's novel Cogan's Trade, the movie is strong and compelling, making its meaning about the lifelessness of the low life world--no beat, no dance. 

Gangster life follows itself down new born streets fleeing its own grim shadow.

But to my mind the movie veers off badly into representations of a junkie's haze and into the aesthetics of bullet-shattering-glass-and-body violence and sheer physically brutal, beat down violence. 

And it veers off badly into political allegory wherein the low lifes and their degenerate, murderous crime premised ways stand for capitalist and high finance America and, more, personal relations in America itself.

When it so veers off, the movie loses its compelling dour, sour, relentlessly grim centre. 

The aesthetics seem only for their own sake, adding no thematic resonance I can see, in fact subtracting from the film’s grim theme.

The political allegory is too thin and unearned to be taken seriously and marks an intellectual failure of the movie--positing these low lifes and their world as the literal ground on which to symbolize high finance America and human relations within America. The former simply cannot bear the fullness, richness, complexity and variegated nature of the latter; the latter overwhelms the former. 

The parts of the movie that are faithful to Higgins make as good crime drama, unremitting, remorseless, unredeemable, as any I can remember being portrayed on film, the strength deriving from the very uncompromising and unflinching grimness of the portrayal. And that's why the contrasting good looks, steady strength, shrewd, having-his-shit-entirely-together competence of Brad Pitt only seems redemptive. 

For all the tantalizing glamour and competent strength he may be thought to embody, the stinking, nihilistic, human sewer in which he moves, seemingly untouched, moves in him too, inseparable from him.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone interested in George Higgins should read his new bio -- George V Higgins: The Life and Writings.

    It traces Higgins life from pre-cradle to grave, never missing a thing. Higgins' had some dark recesses in his mind, much brilliance and energy, and an unstoppable fluency.

    The author, Ford, treats Higgins fairly, revealing his subject's personality, flaws, hopes, and troubles. Not a wasted word in the whole biography -- it's insightful, funny, tragic, and enlightening.