Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik (Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard
“America’s not a country. It’s a business.”
Despite boasting a very, very slim body of work, writer/director Andrew Dominik has proven himself to be one of the most talented film makers around, already having two bona fide classics under his belt in the brutal and darkly comic Chopper, and the visually stunning Western epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both films are a treasure trove of stunning cinematography, clever editing, and hidden social commentary.
It is unfortunate that such directing ability must so often come hand in hand with a dislike for studio film making. Just like Terrance Mallick during his wilderness years, Dominik appears to struggle with the commercial demands, even being forced to abandon projects all together. Over a ten year career Dominik has sadly only managed to bring three films to screen.
Killing Them Softly, an off-beat gangster movie, is the third of these films, and while full of the expected technical and visionary flair, it is by no means a classic worthy of Dominik’s previous efforts.
It is 2008. The financial meltdown is at its height and America is facing the reality of its terminally declining economic power. The infection runs so deep it is even affecting the world of organised crime – a traditional backbone of American enterprise, and one usually immune to the effects of economic depression. Against this backdrop Jackie Cogan, a notorious gangland enforcer, is hired by the mob in a dilapidated post-industrial community, and given the task of hunting down two youths who have recently robbed a closed door poker game.
Despite the directors flawless track record, a top of his game performance from Brad Pitt, and a supporting cast which reads like a fantasy dream team of Italian gangster actors, (including Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and that guy who plays Johnny Sacks in the Soprano’s) it is difficult to see exactly why Killing Them Softly doesn’t quite live up to its salivating potential.
What is difficult to ignore throughout is the clumsy and heavy handed critique of modern America which is largely detached from the narrative yet continually barges its way into nearly every scene. At first it is alluded to in a relatively restrained and non-invasive way as news footage plays out on bar TV’s and speeches from the presidential electoral race are heard in the background over car radios, but eventually audio is edited over footage entirely for the audience’s benefit. It’s like being sat in a lecture. Irritatingly this begins to interrupt otherwise gripping scenes as characters break off from their dialogue to offer their own political commentary on an Obama speech. Its very unnatural and is more pronounced given that much of the dialogue is aimless banter full of dark humour. By the end the political asides have become unbearably cringe inducing and are finally topped off with a shockingly artificial final scene in which a character all but breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience. This is in sharp contrast to the way in which Jesse James handled the issues of celebrity worship, a theme hidden within the narrative to the point where the viewer could be forgiven for not even noticing it.
Had the political commentary been more thoughtfully embedded into the dialogue then Killing Them Softly could have easily established itself as an interesting and off-beat take on the now well worn gangster genre. The plot is simple and not exactly original, but is never-the-less full of interesting and comical gangland episodes. Cogan comes into contact with a tragic array of modern gangsters who aren’t up to the ruthless demands of their business, such as Gandolfini’s alcoholic depressive, too concerned with his divorce and court orders to go through with his job. And though it is Cogan who constantly reacts with consternation at the toothless and politically correct state of the modern mob, he also betrays a lack of cutting edge, preferring to delegate any jobs which involve close up encounters because they are too awkward and emotionally complicated. By themselves these stories are enough to get the point across that America no longer produces the ruthless business men which once made it unrivaled.
There are also problems with the dialogue. Dominik has stated that the film was intended to be a dark comedy, not unlike Chopper. Indeed, there are a few gems in there which will make people either chuckle or gasp, but there are too many occasions where it just goes horribly wrong and again comes across as forced: “Let me give you some advice sweetheart. Stop acting like your anus is a national treasure.”
Despite its narrative flaws Killing Them Softly still finds several opportunities to demonstrate Dominik’s mesmarising technical abilities which should ensure that it is used to teach upcoming Director’s for years to come. A bizarre but attention grabbing intro sets the bar, and the central heist is a masterclass of unbearable tension worthy of Tarantino. There is also a more than successful scene of shocking brutality which is seemingly required of any would be gangster film, which adds the kind of intricate and grim details that make you want to reach out and help the poor guy being beaten. Dominik also reaffirms his enjoyment of playing around with characters taking drugs and using clever editing to capture their distorted sense of time and space. There are many other almost iconic scenes, but most notable and difficult to forget is a jaw dropping assassination sequence filmed in extreme slow motion, where rain soaked bullet cartridges fall from a gun chamber, while the bullets repeatedly, and beautifully, shatter a cars glass windows.
Killing Them Softly is an interesting and often impressive piece of film making, more likely to be enjoyed by fans of cutting edge cinematography and editing techniques than people who just want to be entertained. But what should have been a fairly straight forward gangster tale is slightly undermined by some overenthusiastic and forced political commentary which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the film.