Two disheveled looking men meet on the central reservation of an empty New Orleans road with the aim of making some quick money; one smokes nervously while the other grips the leads of a pack of stolen dogs. Balancing the desolation of post recession America and the inherent black comedy of catastrophe, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly begins promisingly. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn put in a good showing as down and outs Frankie and Russell, their rambling conversations and short exchanges with Vincent Curatola's Johnny "Squirrel" Amato border on the Tarantinoesque. Together the three plan and execute the perfect crime, but this is the high point of the film. For the characters and the audience, it's only downhill from here.
Dominik's third feature film, the director gives us more of his blend of realistic, unglamorised violence and honest character portraits of criminals, but while this kept us engrossed in biopic Chopper, it isn't enough to lend the film more than a veneer of authenticity. Adapted from George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade and transplanted to 2008, the film follows Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan as he hunts down the hapless trio and cleans up after they knock off a mob protected card game. His second collaboration with Dominik. Pitt gives a strong individual performance as enforcer Cogan but from his first appearance onward the film loses the plot and spirals off into a tangential gangland pastiche.
Any sense of tension the film had is lost, with the plot signposted from the offset and the previously hinted at political allegory kicked into overdrive. Barack Obama and George W. Bush vie for our confidence as speeches about the economy blare over shots of a city in ruins. Hitmen listen to radio broadcasts in their cars and converse in dingy bars while political propaganda pumps out of a TV set in the corner. In my opinion the film would have worked just as well without its subtext so heavily broadcast and cutting or at least reducing the volume of these speeches might have stopped the film's undertones from being quite so grating.
With its underlying message so close to the surface, the narrative of Killing Them Softly cracks, barely able to contain the film's satirical sideswipes. After the introduction of the film's key players original character development is eschewed in favour of the usual gangster film tropes, most notably with James Gandolfini's aged assassin, Mickey. An alcoholic with a failing marriage, Mickey drinks and whores his way through his 20 minutes on screen, offering little other than a couple of choice lines to show for it. Dead to the world and unable to do his job any more, Gandolfini's appearance seems unnecessary and tips the film further away from its punchy beginning.
Occasional moments break through this thickening shield of numbness, most notably those of extreme violence directed primarily at Ray Liotta. Speaking with the New York Times Dominik noted that "you see fight scenes a lot, but you don’t see people systematically beating somebody else. The idea was just to make it really, really, really ugly". In this respect he succeeds completely. There is none of the glamour usually attached to Hollywood's portrayal of contract killing in the film's violence. Even Pitt's hitman acknowledges the grim reality of his profession, preferring to kill his victims from a distance, to kill them softly. This isn't the only strength of the film: the soundtrack, the shooting style and huge portions of the dialogue are wonderful. Scoot McNairy and Pitt's performances especially worth noting though sadly often overshadowed by the film's excessively emphatic presentation of its message.
It's almost my only gripe with Killing Them Softly, but it's one I simply can't ignore. The film leaves no room for individual interpretation, ladling on its message thick with the constant contrast of speeches on the economy and shots of trailer park life. Just one of these heavy handed pieces of irony, would have been sufficient, but it seems The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director is intent on spelling everything out for his audience.
Though beautifully shot and interesting at times, Killing Them Softly wallows in its own bleakness and knowing irony far too often for my liking, taking what could have been a stunning and scathing attack on modern capitalism and leaving it an entertaining film hampered by having to compete with its own overbearing political preaching.