Andrew Dominik always had an ominous mountain to climb with his next feature, having polarized opinion with The Assassination Of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, that most tonal and visually textured of revisionist Westerns, but with Killing Them Softly he has certainly at least avoided the black hole that tends to suck young talents perilously down into obscurity. He might not, however, have scored a huge commercial hit.
Taking a leaf out of Jesse James‘s book, Killing Them Softly is effectively a post-gangster film, deconstructing the genre and smashing it against the oh-so-contemporary wall built by recessions and austerity measures. The label might still seem to read “gangster,” with the presence of wise guys and henchmen presiding over their own lawless patches of the murky underbelly of normal society, but gone is the aspirational elements of Goodfellas and Casino in favor of a tight-belted, thoroughly modern revision of the gangster ideal. For all intents and purposes, this is the cut-price Cosa Nostra.
The film focuses on the after-effects of a knocked off high-stakes underworld card game, hosted by Markie (Ray Liotta) a man with previous of robbing his own games, and the attempt by infamous enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to clean up the mess and find the assailants – local hoods-for-hire Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and the brains of the operation Squirrel (Vincent Curatola). Cogan is also instructed by a mysterious driver character (Richard Jenkins) who acts as a mouth-piece for an unseen powerful influence, and brings in contractor James Gandolfini to help take out the targets, when a pre-standing personal relationship makes the act an inconvenience to his own hand.
There will no doubt be comparison’s with last year’s surprise hit Drive, and there are some pertinent similarities, not least in the occasionally shocking presentation of violence, and the idea of the mechanical protagonist (both Driver and Cogan are defined by their jobs and governed by a very specific set of rules). Visually, both films are also strongly representative of their directors’ eyes for stylistics and aesthetic textures, with plot occasionally taking a backseat in preference of characterization and moments of stylistic expression.
But Killing Them Softly is a more of an intellectually driven project, with a much higher word count and some exchanges between characters, especially Mendelsohn and McNairy, reminiscent of a Tarantino flick. There is no mistaking the fact that Dominik loves his characters, letting their dialogue shine uninterrupted (to brilliant effect in a particularly fine Gandolfini monologue) and building a very visual mystique for Pitt’s Cogan that makes up for the actor’s minimalist approach.
Pitt is good as Cogan without really extending himself too much – in the same way Ryan Gosling shone as Driver – and here more than in most films, Pitt is trading on his star quality, that intangible essence that gives him presence and makes producers pay the big bucks. And fuck, does he look cool: Pitt’s swagger mirrors that of his director, whose grim aesthetic is completely at odds with the confidence he puts into the style and attitude of the film, with only a comparatively limited interest in the usual conventions of narrative film-making.
As dialogue is king, the finest performances generally come from those actors given the most generous lines: Gandolfini is excellent as a boozy, broken old assassin, Ben Mendelsohn is suitably grotesque as the bumbling oaf who unravels the entire heist secret, and Scoot McNairy offers the most recognizably human performance, descending from cock-sure chancer to horrified prey without losing his sympathetic grip on the audience which adds poignancy to the entire cat and mouse game. Richard Jenkins is…well, he’s Richard Jenkins, as usual.
The film’s intellectual aspirations go beyond the wordiness though. Dominik paints a bleak picture of modern America, creating a rather insistent juxtaposition of the Obama regime’s pre-election promises of hope, redemption, and change and the dilapidated, broken geography of a country on its knees thanks to the economy. In that context, the ostentatious living of Henry Hill and co. would be even more perverse than that juxtaposition, and the director has no time for them, even including genre veterans Gandolfini and Liotta as broken characters, suffering similar hangovers from their excess as Dominik’s America is.
In the recession hit era, the peacock-like wiseguys of stalwart genre films are gone, replaced with those sorry aging excuses and young opportunist upstarts without the class or acknowledgement of the gangster code of the good old days, and even worse, the families are now run by committee, explicitly fore-fronting Dominik’s preoccupation with corporate decay. It might be a little heavy-handed, especially in the perpetual loop of political speeches that form a major part of the soundtrack, but the parallel between the rot of the US and the new recession-influenced, corporate led mob is extremely intriguing.
That heavy-handedness is rather more obvious in the final scene, with Cogan’s closing monologue/rant bringing down both America and that new, softer corporate mafia, and it could perhaps have been handled slightly more subtly. It is a rare moment of slight self-indulgence, especially in the baiting criticism of Thomas Jefferson, but all in all, Killing Them Softly is an artfully crafted, occasionally very funny satire dressed up in tough-guy leathers and packing a knuckle duster punch.
The Upside: Dominik chooses to pick out his political message with some darkly comical touches, which offer another level to a very cool film which more commercially minded audiences might find slightly too minimalist.
The Downside: The political message is a little heavy-handed, and the film could do with a tiny bit more polish. It’s very close though.