The last time New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik made an American film, it was a pretty big deal. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward was an elegant, contemplative movie that demystified a notorious anecdote of the Old West, while doing it justice as the stuff of mythic poetry. By contrast, Dominik's Killing Them Softly is no big deal: it's paltry, nasty stuff, at least as far as the story's concerned. Bunch of hoods rob another bunch of hoods; as a result, people get hurt, everybody loses, end of story.
You'd be hard pressed to find more familiar, grubbily anecdotal material. Yet it yields a very substantial and stylish film, less a straight thriller than a caustic, dramatically expansive depiction of contemporary America as a nation on Skid Row.
The story is adapted by Dominik from the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins, a US crime writer revered as a master of no-bullshit dialogue. It begins with small-time boss "Squirrel" (Vincent Curatola) hiring abject stooges Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob the poker game run by one Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta); Trattman will be the Mob's first suspect, since he once robbed his own establishment. The heist, executed in an incredibly tense extended scene, comes off as planned Ω but no one realises that retribution will follow swiftly, in the form of enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Hired by the Mob's blandly urbane "business-liaison" type Driver (Richard Jenkins), Cogan specialises in killing people but prefers "killing them softly … at a distance", so that messy emotions don't get in the way. That means he likes to subcontract when necessary, but he makes a bad choice in hiring washed-up veteran Mickey (James Gandolfini), who regales Cogan with his marital woes before settling in for a lost weekend of booze and whoring.
We're used to heist stories escalating into Jacobean-tragedy situations, bodies piling up inexorably. This film is bracingly different: its narrative logic isn't linear, but a matter of drift and uncertainty, fuelled by much rhythmic talk. Here's an example of how unorthodox the film is: it's supposedly a Brad Pitt vehicle, yet he doesn't make an appearance for some time. We start with a fragmented soundtrack verging on musique concrète, as Frankie strides across a wasteland blown about with flying wastepaper, to rendezvous with the shambling Russell. They meet Johnny, who narrates the flashback that reveals why Trattman is a prime mark. It's only later that the film's nominal star shows up as the one competent professional in a world of losers, abusers and executive hypocrites.
While Pitt's coolly commanding presence brings a strong focus, Cogan has a lot less dialogue than other key figures. This is, in fact, a terrific character showcase all around. Mendelsohn is peerlessly creepy as a potty-mouthed sleazebag whose inner grubbiness has seeped through to his skin: you can practically smell the rancidness of a man who looks as though he showers in diluted sewage. McNairy's Frankie, almost sympathetic only because he's childlike in his cluelessness, makes a terrific impression with his whiny, weasly demeanour. As for Gandolfini, he'll probably never quite shake off Tony Soprano, but his Mickey Ω a portrait of the blowhard as human wreckage Ω is at once a close cousin and a memorably pathetic Everyman in his own right.
As the businessman who minces words fastidiously while buying bloodshed, Richard Jenkins is at the centre of the film's moral picture: he embodies the violence of corporate America, in which accountants, CEOs and the Mob share the same moral codes. In essence, Killing Them Softly is a brutally squalid shaggy dog story, with a brisk coda that tells us, "America is a business".
But the film's big flaw is that it makes its point too bluntly. What we could easily have gleaned for ourselves, Dominik drives home in repetitive clips of radio and TV broadcasts from the 2008 presidential run-up; scene after scene imports heavy irony by using soundbites of Obama or Bush talking about the challenges facing America in the light of financial catastrophe.
Music that is too obvious also hampers the film. There's a memorable smack-shooting scene in which dialogue slows and faces blur – but did it really have to be set to the Velvet Underground's "Heroin"? There's stylish but not altogether surprising use of the languid "Love Letters" over a slo-mo panorama of carnage, and sour use of antique ditties such as "Paper Moon". Dominik should find himself a more lateral-thinking music supervisor.
It's a shame because, overall, the film is anything but obvious. Shot in widescreen by Greig Fraser, it is imposingly anti-glamorous, the empty car lots and burnt-out neighbourhoods resembling desolate tone poems in several shades of murk. And Dominik has a sneaky way of distracting our attention. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed, framed in a doorway and out of focus, a woman who seems to be robbing the Squirrel's safe with impunity.
For all its flaws, Dominik's film is boldly unconventional and downright chilling in its view of the USA today – a grim panorama of venality, futility and soul-destroying hotel lounges. Killing Them Softly isn't pleasant, and it's not perfect, but it's hardcore: American crime cinema at its smartest and most unapologetically cynical.
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