Andrew Dominik’s talents as a filmmaker are matched only by his pretentions. Dominik’s first film was the Australian Chopper, which introduced Eric Bana to the world, but he’s better known for his mournful The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, a gorgeous, epic 160-minute reverie on American history and violence that thrilled critics considerably more than it did audiences. In Dominik’s new film Killing Them Softly, the presence of Brad Pitt and a similarly cynical view of Americana are reminders of Jesse James, although on a more modest scale.
Killing Them Softly is a small (97-minute) crime tale, somewhat Tarantino-esque in its rhythms although based by Dominik on a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins called “Cogan’s Trade”. Higgins, who was himself a deputy attorney general in Massachusetts, told tight, compassionate stories about doomed mobsters and petty betrayals, and was also the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a superb example of the 1970s brand of low-key Hollywood thriller, with a near-perfect script by Paul Monash, wonderfully controlled direction by Peter Yates, and a career-defining performance by Robert Mitchum. (Ben Affleck has cited it as one of the chief influences on his The Town, and it was undoubtedly an antecedent of The Wire.)
The story of Softly, as adapted in the film, is very simple. Two bottom-feeder mooks, the hopeless heroin addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and the slightly more even-keeled Frankie (Scoot McNairy), at the instigation of Johnny (Vincent Curatola), rob the underground poker game run by mid-level gangster Markie (Ray Liotta). The mob powers that be, not sure who the guilty parties are (Markie had once robbed his own game and although he was allowed to get away with it, has never quite been trusted since), have middleman henchman Driver (Richard Jenkins) bring in the brutally clear-eyed hitman Cogan (Pitt), to find out who was responsible and teach them–and anyone who might dare such a transgression–a lesson. Cogan initially brings in a partner named Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him with the job, but ultimately decides he has to handle things himself.
As long as Dominik is willing to simply let the tale play out, Killing Them Softly is a strong, spare, compelling piece of work. The action proceeds mostly by lengthy duologues, marked by jabs of Mamet-like repartee exchanged by the excellent cast. Even if one can guess where it’s all going–and one can–there’s a fatalistic inevitability to the proceedings that works well. Pitt’s performance has the intensity of his turns in Moneyball and Inglourious Basterds, but with more danger and vicious deadpan wit, and his extended scenes with Jenkins, Gandolfini and McNairy are a pleasure to watch. Gandolfini, too, while unavoidably hitting some Tony Soprano-esque notes, creates an entire multifaceted character in relatively small screen time.
Dominik, though, is stalking bigger game. The movie is very specifically and obtrusively set in mid-2008 (although visually it still has a strong vibe of the Eddie Coyle 70s), as the economy was falling apart and the Obama campaign was getting into gear. Scene after scene from the opening credits onward has political speeches or news footage playing in the background and sometimes as the subject of dialogue, the better to hammer home Dominik’s message that the ruthless dynamic of the underworld is just a mirror of the nation’s larger economy and pitiless midset. Dominik is also prone to fracturing his own film for the sake of creating showy set-pieces, as when a shooting is turned into a virtually self-contained music video of flying glass and splattering blood, set to a love song from 1962 for no apparent reason other than to call attention to itself. (Dominik’s prominent use of unexpected music sometimes pays off big, as in a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash singing “The Man Comes Around” for Pitt’s entrance, and sometimes drowns in its own irony, like a clumsy rendition of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” near the end.) He’s also drained much of the humanity from the characters in order to underscore his own point about the heartlessness of American capitalism and the interchangeability of individuals. Violent nihilism might have been an excitingly dangerous philosophy back in the mid-20th century, but now it feels like the worn attitude of an eager undergraduate.
There’s a great deal of talent in Killing Them Softly, not only from the actors, but cinematographer Greig Fraser (who also shot Snow White and the Huntsman and the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty) and editor Brian A. Kates. The film is in another league from the usual spate of gangster movies, with more of an interest in presenting an integrated world-view than even Tarantino has shown. Dominik just hasn’t figured out yet how to pull himself back, so that his movie can breathe on its own, instead of playing as an illustration of its director’s college admissions essay. “Softness” is what it’s lacking.
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