Cannes 2012 | On the Road, Killing Them Softly
Much has been made of the increased presence of American titles at this year's Cannes, although it might be more precise to say the lineup is heavy on American stars. True, there are a handful of U.S. directors in competition. Wes Anderson imagines a 1965 New England fantasia in Moonrise Kingdom, and new films by Lee Daniels and Jeff Nichols will screen later this week. But the other most obviously commercial competition titles aren't strictly homegrown, at least in terms of their auteurs. We have work by an Australian (John Hillcoat with Lawless), a New Zealand–born Australian (Andrew Dominik with Killing Them Softly), a Brazilian (Walter Salles with On the Road) and a Canadian (David Cronenberg with Cosmopolis, which doesn't play until Friday). In film history, there's a long tradition of outsiders examining American ideals. The last 24 hours have offered twin examples.
Cannes gave this year's coveted Wednesday-morning slot—traditionally accorded to the likes of Inglourious Basterds and Melancholia—to Walter Salles's long-in-the-making adaptation of On the Road, a selective filming of Kerouac's novel that manages to be watchable, picturesque and mostly pointless. If this handsome international coproduction does a solid job of conveying the feel of wide-open spaces of the '40s (less so the scenes set in Ozone Park, Queens), it misses the book's jazzier tone. Kerouac's prose style—his enthusiasm, his openness, the way he gabs with everyone he meets—never registers in Sam Riley's earnest performance as the author's stand-in, Sal Paradise. This is On the Road as experienced by someone who exhibits no personality, a story of self-discovery in which there's no self to discover. A boundary-pushing portrait of a generation "mad to be saved" (an iconic passage the movie quotes only in part) has become an Oscar-baiting period piece in which rebellion is signified by Twilight's Kristen Stewart going topless.
With an episodic structure, you're almost guaranteed a few good scenes, and some of the walk-ons are inspired. Kirsten Dunst, as Dean Moriarty's mistress-turned–second wife Camille, lends the movie a necessary dose of melancholy, and Steve Buscemi turns up in a wholly unexpected role. The most fun appearance by far is Viggo Mortensen's work as William Burroughs doppelgänger Bull Lee. At the press conference, the filmmakers explained that they wanted the movie to preserve the original's countercultural spirit. "In a sense, what we're portraying in the film has a correlation with The Motorcycle Diaries, which is about a social and political awakening," director Salles said, referring to his mostly tedious 2004 film about the early years of Che Guevara. That's true. But in both cases, you have movies about unruly figures shot by an aesthetically conservative filmmaker, drawn to scenic vistas and tidy moralism.
Lean where On the Road is bloated, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is another sort of time capsule—transporting viewers back to the late '90s, when every week seemed to bring a new Tarantino knockoff. In truth, the movie's lineage is more complex: Based on a 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade, by George V. Higgins, the film has pointedly been updated to the 2008 election season. It opens with an Obama speech on the American Dream, heard in voiceover over shots of an economically devastated Louisiana neighborhood. Interspersing newscasts throughout, Dominik attempts to connect the crime in the film—a pair of hapless crooks (Ben Mendelsohn and Scott McNairy) rob a poker circle whose boss (Ray Liotta) has already gotten away with stealing from the group—to the global financial crisis. Brad Pitt plays the hit man called in to deal with the ensuing mess.
As tempting as the parallel is, the analogy between unregulated mob theft and the derivatives market doesn't really track, and all that's left is 97 minutes of rote, plotless mayhem. James Gandolfini finds the right level of stylization as one of Pitt's fellow assassins, and a few especially violent deaths mark the film as the work of the man who made 2000's macho Chopper. Still, anyone familiar with the mesmerizing poetry of Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will feel betrayed. The normally electric Brad Pitt has never been more subdued. Once you take away the unearned significance, what you're left with is a lot of pseudo-edgy wiseguy chatter—less a movie about America than about the way America is portrayed in movies.