Edited and Updated Mid-2016
It’s perhaps fitting that The Killing, a film so predicated on control and careful positioning was brought to life by a director who lived and breathed control and precision. It is usually considered director Stanley Kubrick’s first “mature” film, something which has two meanings here. Firstly, it’s the film where we see aspects of the filmmaker’s form and style come to fruition, including perhaps his most ubiquitous care: his love of calculated, icy cold filmmaking, perniciously-formed and rigorous like clockwork mechanics, where humans don’t much matter at all except in their capacity to move event and process forward. The Killing is the kind of filmmaking which would define his later efforts and mark him as one of the great visual masters of contempt-ravaged cinema, and it is a particularly suited film, and film genre, the noir, for Kubrick to have cut his metallic teeth on.
Secondly, it’s perhaps his most mature film because it reflects the only one of his mature films where he’s playing by the rules rather than barreling off and defining them himself according to his own vision of what they ought to be. Thus, if it’s a masterpiece in its own right, it is a more formally “professional” masterpiece, and thus a slightly less unique and notable one. The wild child auteur-ism of his later films, the gleeful cutting-into-tiny-little-bits of everything that was mainstream cinema logic, exists only in its infancy here. Present no doubt, but struggling to emerge from its shell and reveal itself for the world to see.
Not that it matters, for Kubrick’s goal with The Killing seems to have been to essay the most perfect version of its genre, and not to barrel off to invent new genres altogether. In a sense, it is not simply a film noir, but it is the film noir. This is a film populated with characters as stereotypically film noir as they come, which is to say as defined by their amorality as they come. The narrative is really nothing other than their working to get a plan (to rob a horse-racing track) together and execute on it with the director’s own trademark tight grip – the characters, and who they are as people, really don’t matter. It isn’t concerned with morality, nor character development, nor anything except rigorous plotting and suspense slipping through the cracks. In some sense then, this is Kubrick’s attempt to close the book on the noir, to take it to its logical extreme and give us nothing but its bare essentials. Perhaps that’s why so few film noirs came out after the film’s release in 1956; Kubrick had already provided the film noir sentence its brutal period with an acid-soaked poison-pen.
Visually, he pulls out all the tricks in the noir book: off-kilter angles, clever use of deep, inhuman silence and loud, booming sounds, a brutal, staccato editing technique that cuts when it really means it, an interplay between light and dark. It’s all here and it all fills in the gaps and cracks the characters forgot to think about. They aren’t given much by the script, so it’s Kubrick’s camera which brings them to life by imitating their style-over-substance lifestyles and their pure, unfiltered commitment to their plan. They are automatons, and Kubrick directs them in a, and as one big big, automaton.
This is all to say that saying this film lacks well-defined characters misses the point. They are defined by their role in a plan Kubrick is fascinated with, and above all defined by their lack of self-definition outside of that plan. For them, it’s all about success or failure. Kubrick rightfully doesn’t give them meaningful home lives because they are so superficial as to not care about home lives themselves. For this reason, when the seams start to come undone as the film unravels and they try desperately to put all the pieces back together, there’s genuine suspense and anxiety, genuine steam billowing from the audience, not only because Kubrick creates visual tension with his camera but because he’s defined these characters purely based on their tight planning. The film becomes all tight, sinewy kraftwerk, and its humans are just part of everything else in the frame working as a whole – they become one with the environment. That it de-emphasizes individual people in favor of a focus on logistics is at once very much Kubrick and very much critical of Western attitudes in its entire filmic sensibility. If America cared about individualized protagonists with conflicts and resolutions, Kubrick had a thing or two to say to them. That these characters lack any character development is itself a commentary on how inhuman and stagnant their lives were, how single-minded to the point where their humanity, their growth, had been excised.
Which conspires to create a work of atomic technique in perfect harmony with atomic subject. In his shot selection, in his raw focus on process and editing and pinpoint accuracy over anything else resembling a soul, Kubrick mimics his protagonists and their worldviews. He obsesses over their plan and the act of them constructing it, as they obsess over it, just like he would come to obsess over each and every one of his films. The result is a mechanical, monomaniacal film for mechanical, monomaniacal people, a perfect marriage of a director’s icy, ruthlessly stripped style and an icy, ruthlessly stripped subject. The Killing seems like the earliest flowering of what would become his signature style and interests, a statement to his own obsessions, a work that is itself obsessively focused on a plan that becomes a self-implicating critique of people who are obsessively focused on plans. In excluding any humanity or warmth, it becomes a statement about a modern world in which warmth and humanity were left out in the cold long ago. So too does it become a work about a director who would go on to comment on humanity for several decades precisely by opening the door in the dead of winter and kicking the species right out on the curb.
There are a million and one analyses of heist films which belabor their metaphorical status as meta-textual reflections on cinema, each being a collective project rooted in plotting, storyboarding, planning, and pulling off a mutual undertaking. Fair enough, but The Killing alone uses this specious metaphor to question the art form, to expose a mechanical, dehumanizing quality to it that Kubrick dialectically interrogates as both the pinnacle of humankind’s possibility and the nadir of its monomania.
Score: 10/10 (edited)