Film Review – Killing Them Softly
Since 2000, writer/director Andrew Dominik has made only three films: Chopper (2000), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and now Killing Them Softly. Twelve years with only three films, but they are three painstakingly detailed and surprisingly heady, thought-provoking films. Chopper tells the story of an Australian criminal who, while in prison, writes a memoir of his life in crime that becomes a national bestseller, which helps make a strong commentary for the case of the Son of Sam laws that exist here in the United States. The Assassination of Jesse James is a poetic meditation on the effects a life of crime has on a person and their surroundings, and comes off as something closer to a Terrence Malick film than the tight, visceral impact of Chopper. The film approached its narrative like that of a novel: many characters weaving in and out, all surrounding the central figure who provided the story’s through line.
Now, with Killing Them Softly, Dominik seeks to examine the core basis for the reason why crime essentially exists in the first place: economics, something often overlooked in crime cinema. The story opens during the 2008 United States Presidential election. As we are introduced to what comes closest to one of the film’s central characters, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), an excerpt from a speech by now-president Barack Obama, about the need for a government financial bailout in the face of a looming economic crisis, is played for the soundtrack instead of any music. This technique is used throughout most of the film, and plays an important part in the story’s narrative. Times are tough, and Frankie helps illustrate this by telling his friend about the catch-22 situation he’s in regarding a job, and how they don’t provide a means of transportation, public or otherwise, for his long commute. He needs the job to make money to then pay for transportation to get to the job. The thought brings to mind the contradictory rules of acquiring credit cards; you must have one to get one.
Faced with a no-win financial situation, Frankie decides to take a job that is assured to him to be guaranteed no-risk in terms of repercussions. With a partner, Frankie is supposed to rip off a high-stakes private card game that is run by the local mafia—the idea behind the job being that the whole thing would get blamed on the guy running the games, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Once the job is pulled, personal economic gain for those who did it goes up, while the economy of the mafia suffers. There’s no confidence left in the investors and unless certain actions are taken, it’s going to be bad for everyone. In comes Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). It’s Jackie’s job to ensure order is maintained in the world of the mafia, which means returning confidence to the people not investing in the card games.
The sign of a good director is someone who knows how to effectively use their talent. I’ve often cited P.T. Anderson’s use of Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love as a prime example of this—taking an actor of limited range and using that to the film’s, and character’s, strength. Brad Pitt is an actor much like this, and I would argue he has very little range. His style of acting is typically comprised of how much intensity his line delivery should have. One of the drawbacks to Dominik’s Jesse James is that Pitt plays a character who’s supposed to be growing more paranoid and weathered, and simply plays the part as going crazier, by just delivering his lines more intensely and maniacally than he did at the beginning of the film. Here, Dominik is using Pitt in a more straightforward fashion. Cogan is a man of sensibilities and common sense, and he’s surrounded by incompetence and near-sighted thinking. Pitt plays his character as constantly annoyed or downright flabbergasted at the actions of those around him, and it works to the film’s strength.
In just three films, Dominik has cultivated a very distinct and elegant style to his filmmaking. The editing coupled with unique camera shots provides a visual grammar that’s void in most modern films. There is a complete sense of a lack of urgency with the storytelling. Characters talk away and scenes play out with considerable length, much like Tarantino showed us with his first three films. It’s a refreshing reminder in this ADHD, no-attention-span climate of modern films, that a movie that deliberately takes its time is more effective than one-second cuts and extreme close-ups. To illustrate this fact, the heist at the card game is probably the film’s most effective scene. Copping a similar style Peter Yates gave to the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle—also based on a book by George V. Higgins, who wrote the novel Cogan’s Trade, which this film is based on—Dominik allows the crime to play out calmly and methodically, feeling a bit more realistic than the spastic, over-the-top heists a lot of films portray.
The film cleverly bookends itself with President Obama’s acceptance speech from this year’s election, and uses his words to poignantly drive the film’s point home. However, in doing so, as well as inserting speeches by Senator John McCain and ex-President George W. Bush, the film runs the risk of overstatement. There are no through-line characters to develop, and there is no central plot to progress. The story is like Dominik’s previous films, a meditation on an idea surrounding events that occur in a criminal world. For me this works, and gives far more depth to what could otherwise be a typical exercise in crime fiction.
Final Grade: A