By: Daniel Reynolds
Life of Pi came out last weekend. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve read the book and I know it tells a universal tale of faith and the beauty of the human spirit. Instead, I saw Andrew Dominik’s new film Killing Them Softly. It is based on a book too (haven’t read it yet), but it is not a heartwarming movie. Killing Them Softly is 97 minutes of cold, hard grind. There is no glorious whale here. You know the sound a garbage truck makes, shuffling dumpsters around early – it’s always early – in the morning? That is the general tenor of this film.
And I loved it.
Killing Them Softly is New Zealander Dominik’s third film and his second collaboration with star Brad Pitt. Back in 2007, they (along with Casey Affleck, who only turned in one of the better performances of the decade) uncoiled the hidden masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Rob Ford. Again borrowing from a book, Dominik sought to recast the myths of the wild west in a harsh, yet bracingly practical mold. However, where that film was filled with dreamy, lyrical passages, evocative voice-over and wide vistas of untamed wilderness, Killing Them Softly traffics in hard realities, cold silence and the grimy claustrophobia of modern urbanity. Its story begins with two hoodlums, the mousy, likable Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and slimy, shifty Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, who appears glazed in sweat for the entire film), getting set up with an idea from the dumpy Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, born to play low level gangsters). The duo plan to stick up a card game run by another gangster, the affable Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta, playing right into type), pocket some dirty money, keep their heads down and, if things go according to plan, enjoy the high life for a little while.
Naturally, as with any caper done by a couple of small time numbskulls, things eventually turn bad. Enter Jackie (Pitt), the man in black, summoned at the behest of another man referred to as Driver (Richard Jenkins, on hand to balance perfectly the pervading sense of out of control machismo) to set things right, so to speak. What follows is a dance as inevitable as the directive of the film’s title. The order of the underworld economy has been upset and shadowy men, men that seem to exist in a parallel universe from our own, are paid to appear, reorganize and reset. And while that same title insists on a low volume approach, the film is definitely not shy about noisily taking a guy’s life. Yes, violence is definitely a part of Killing Them Softly’s brutal machinations but, of course, any crime film is really only as good as its language and character. This is where the pitch black heart of the film pumps furiously to life; in the scenes of our two low life hooligans shooting the shit (including one frustrating sequence shot from the perspective of Russell as he slides in and out of a drug trip); in the calm, efficient talk of professionals discussing business; and in the angry ramblings let loose by disillusioned criminals, out of touch. I should add that the last of these flavours is largely (and I mean largely) provided by James Gandolfini as Mickey, a soon to be retired hitman who has lost his grip on his profession, his sense of self-worth and his reality (criminal or otherwise). Gandolfini grunts and wheezes through the role with comfortable ease, showing what can happen when greed (and lust, and aggression) grows unchecked and unfulfilled.
Now here is where we have to wheel on the predominant criticism of the film. The force of its visual bluster is matched only by the bluntness of its allegory, its in your face political pandering. In Dominik’s underworld, in 2008, all of the TVs and radios are tuned to C-SPAN and political talk shows, even the opening credits are intercut with a speech by then-Senator Obama. As the criminal plot unfolds, it is made clear, with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast, that the topside of America’s economy can be disrupted in a similar way; it too can involve greedy, craven men and figuratively (one would hopefully assume) violent restructuring. For all of the film’s clever jargon and delightfully disgusting attention to detail, it is here that Dominik’s work may lose steam for some.
And yet, in a final flourish, with now-President Obama’s hopeful victory speech heard in the background, Pitt’s Jackie cynically describes an alternate history of America. It is one that is all dark side and spilled blood, filled with political leaders now canonized in text books despite an untidy (to put it mildly) past. Killing Them Softly is definitely – and defiantly – a product of its time, resolute in its portrayal of a dirty, ugly America, but as it revels in its specificity, it becomes something for all time. Since the first days of the nation that same refrain has been heard. No, not ‘Yes We Can’ but rather: Now pay me.