It should be of little surprise that Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly has been so cooly received as it has thus far. Audiences (and I include in them critics) don’t take well to the out-of-place, the aberrations, those which should not be and yet exist directly before our eyes. And I’ve never seen a gangster film quite like Killing Them Softly, which is to say I’ve never seen a film quite like it. Layering a standard yarn of mob theft with the 2008 economic collapse may seem the work of an opportunist striving for immediacy, until those layers are peeled back to reveal a condemnation of not only contemporary moral decay, but of the very foundational philosophies on which America was built. 97-minute crime flicks shouldn’t be this thoughtful…and yet.
Using a mafia card game as a stand-in for America’s entire economic system, and a robbery for its crash, Dominik (who also wrote the screenplay, adapting George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade) weaves a tale in which somebody- anybody- must take the fall so that business can continue as usual. As with any marketplace, consumer confidence is anything, and if you can’t go into a card game knowing your money is secure, you’re not going to go to a card game. The mob sends a nameless spokesman (Richard Jenkins, credited as “Driver”) to hire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a business-first hitman, to go first after the man they suspect – Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) – and soon the guys who actually pulled the job. Throughout his mission, we’ll hear snippets on TV and over the radio of speeches made by then-President Bush and soon-to-be-President Obama, directly addressing the current-to-the-film economic crisis.
So if you were mistaken that this was supposed to be a terribly realistic look at the behavior of professional criminals, back to The Sopranos go ye. Everything about this film is outsized, from the assaultive opening credits to the choices of music (running neck-and-neck with Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, though used here to more folklore-ish means) to Brad Pitt’s hair and clothes to that sweet, sweet dialogue. One of Dominik’s lesser-sung achievements in his 2007 masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the exquisite language with which he brought to life his legendary characters. Working in a very different environment – Boston thugs rather than Midwest outlaws – Dominik has lost none of his flair, wrecking the English language as a means to exploit its poverty-stricken potential. There’s a speech he gives Brad Pitt right at the end that is so perfectly wrought, and so beautifully crystallizes the film’s outlandish themes, all the while undermining everything Jackie has expressed about himself, I wanted explode with applause even as I was horrified by its implications. Pitt is the absolute compass of this film, owning his starring role in a way he’s only recently been able.
Even if one were to write off the joy of gangster-film-as-political-cartoon, I love what Dominik has done with the characters here. While his just-a-little-too-clever dialogue may reek on first contact of subdivided Tarantino, he was always about making his mooks look cool. The crowd in Killing Them Softly is a combination of opportunists, cowards, degenerates, and truly awful human beings. You can practically smell Russell (Ben Mendelson), one of the card game crooks, long before a character directly remarks on his stench. James Gandolfini comes in as a once-great hitman to help Jackie out, but before he even gets to work he’s too far drowned in liquor and whores, to whom he expresses an unceasing contempt, the manner of which is usually played for laughs but here is just plain cruel. Gandolfini walked a fine line in The Sopranos, rejecting our sympathy as often as he garnered it, but here there’s no mistaking just how terrible a person New York Mickey is. At best, he has a charm that has long since decayed, its corpse rotting in every establishment he enters.
This is one crazy film, I’ll admit. Large-scale satire in the form of moral allegory is something very few filmmakers even think to attempt, much less try, much less pull off so successfully, but once you latch onto Dominik’s peculiar rhythms and modes of representation, there’s really something there. It should probably go without saying, for those who saw Jesse James (which should be EVERYONE, but, you know, probably isn’t) that, shot though this isn’t by Roger Deakins (Greig Fraser more than holds his own in that department), the film is absolutely gorgeous, and has some really fascinating visual strategies. It pulls from the cinema, naturally, but there’s a comic book influence as well – an extended beating scene could play out as panels – and Dominik’s camera placement is sometimes quite jarring, but surprisingly effective, and affecting. He knows when to keep an extended take of Gandolfini rolling, allowing his expression to change just enough to register an emotion Mickey would try to keep hidden, when to let the sound track do the work, and when to, say, attach the camera to a car door and have it swing wildly as it opens.
I guess I could see how Killing Them Softly “isn’t for everyone,” but in many ways it feels like one of the essential films of the year. Not only for its philosophical perspective, but a slate of great performances, and some really fine character building. Rarely do you get a film that isn’t just full of people talking about the plot, but really, genuinely talking in an only-slightly-affected manner. And if Dominik is too insistent upon his own presence, well, all the better for it. If I can’t see the artist in his work, well, then, where is he?