Killing them Softly is an unpleasant film. There is a scene in it, fairly early on, where a man, innocent in this case but not someone who could be called ‘an innocent’, is being beaten until he is vomiting blood. Punches land like bullets in a Michael Mann film, loudly and viscerally, and there are no cutaways. He is being beaten not as a punishment for something he is believed to have done, but because it is felt that he needs to be seen to have been beaten. This sets the tone for what is to be a committedly cynical, squalid and frequently horrid film. To some this might be off-putting, but for those who revel in darkness, then it will be a mostly satisfying experience.
Killing them Softly presents itself as a crime thriller with an ideological twist. Writer-director Andrew Dominik explores the economics of crime, by setting his adaptation of the 1974 George V. Higgins novel _Cogan’s Trade, _a relatively simple mobster story about a gambling heist and its aftermath, amongst the 2008 political situation, the end of the George W. Bush era, and the advent of the Obama period of ‘Yes We Can.’ Radio broadcasts of rallies and speeches are the aural backdrop to many of Dominik’s scenes, though his characters are either uninterested, or in the case of Brad Pitt’s lead of sorts, Jackie Cogan, actively incredulous of the words of the politicians that they hear. “America is not a country, it’s a business,” Jackie says, talking directly to the bar television screen Obama in the films closing sequence, furious at the president-to-be’s suggestion that America will soon become a great community.
Oddly though, whilst our ears tell us that we’re seeing election period late 2000s America, our eyes are led to believe that it the 1970s America of the Higgins novel, and of such great crime thrillers of that era as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or Willaim Friedkin’s The French Connection. Andrew Dominik’s film, through the cinematography of Greig Fraser, consciously recreates the shady look of the 1970s American screen underbelly, and while it looks wonderful, it makes for a somewhat befuddling aesthetic choice, visually everything reeks of the ‘70s, yet we are told it’s the 2000s. Once you get past the sense of chronological confusion it creates though, and accept this stylistic choice for what it is, a minor confusion that allows for a great visual style and homage, Killing them Softly can be seen to have some of the most rich, beautifully murky images of that Gordon Willis-esque beauty in the dark and ugly style put to screen in recent years. The characters drip with sweat and grease, rain beats on car windows unrelentingly and blood and dirt mix in puddles on the dimly lit floor.
Though the initial sense of visual mismatch is a feeling that is easy to overcome, there is another aesthetic problem that may be a lot harder to get past. This is the feeling that at points, Dominik is over-directing the film, putting too heavy a directorial stamp on the film when the subtler one that can be seen through most of the film is more than enough. There are some clumsy, overbearing directorial choices, the a little too obvious ironic use of Kitty Lester’s Love Letters straight after a murder scene for instance, as well as a drug use scene that is stylised to complete distraction. It’s a great shame, not only because the film is so utterly fantastic in its quieter moments, but also because Dominik showed such a restrained directorial style in his previous film _The Assassination of Jesse James. _At points in this it feels like he has thought to himself,’ I haven’t done enough here, I haven’t shown enough, lets slow it down one hundred speed and set it to Johnny Cash,’ and the sad thing is, he had done more than enough. The choice of source text was wise, using the sparse and simple plot as a template from which to a build a film that looks at the ineptitude of criminals, as well as the similarities between mobsters and politicians, something well explored in this genre for sure, and setting it against the situation of economic crisis mostly works, if sometimes feels a little heavy handed. The more sparsely directed action scenes- an early heist in particular - are electrifyingly tense, and the dialogue exchanges that intersect the action are clever, frequently very blackly comic and well written. The film has a riveting opening act, and an enormously satisfying close showing Pitt’s character’s irresistibly alluring weary cynicism. What’s more, there are a great set of performances; the young pairing of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are superb as two hapless heist men penetrating a world that is out of their depth; Ray Liotta plays an uncharacteristically weak mob man well; James Gandolfini is incredibly watchable as a hitman who may as well be Tony Soprano; Richard Jenkins is fantastic as the more corporate side of this operation, and Brad Pitt brings his best performance since his last recent career high in Dominik’s previous film. More than enough.
Dominik can evidently handle a scene and an actor, and a large portion of this film is really quite brilliant. If Dominik had displayed the confidence to just let his material and actors work, a confidence that he really should have by his third feature, he would have his first masterpiece, but the few scenes were he gives too much bring the film down. Despite this, those scenes, whilst a nuisance, do not cripple an otherwise very well rounded film, and there is a lot to like and admire in Dominik’s throwback to an older style of crime film with a twist.