Film Review: Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik is fast becoming one of the more threatening feature directors in film as far as people like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino should be concerned. Having only released three feature films in his relatively young career, two of them by all accounts may end up being considered masterpieces. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford certainly is. A bona fide work of epic grandness that creates the utmost suspense in perhaps the film’s most quiet moments. So too does Dominik’s latest release, Killing Them Softly, which pits a slew of variably broken, small time crims against the backdrop of the 2007 global recession and the Presidential election that followed.
What’s immediately interesting about Killing Them Softly is the lack of detail surrounding the characters, the location, and the overall plot. Whereas George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel was based in New Orleans, Dominik’s film could just as easily be set in Massachusetts, or New York, or Providence. The actual location is never revealed, nor is it relevant considering the overarching themes regarding the idea of America as ‘one nation’ and always being the ‘United States of America’ (as so elegantly put by Barack Obama in his acceptance speech on election night which features in the film). Scoot McNairy’s Frankie may sound like he’s from the northeast, but Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell is contrarily Australian. And judging by the amount of conversations about openness to relocation, just because characters sound like they are from a certain part of the country doesn’t necessarily mean that you are watching a film based in that part of the country.
Apart from McNairy and Ray Liotta’s characters, the accents are largely non-regional, James Gandolfini aside who in fact commutes into the unknown city to perform a job at Jackie Cogan’s (Brad Pitt’s) request. There is not one visual landmark to suggest that you are watching something taking place anywhere other than a collective, suffering America, and this device works well to suggest that you don’t have to come out of New York or Boston to feel like illegal activity in a country with no jobs is your only way to make any significant amount of money. As for the actual plot itself, it’s nothing you haven’t seen in a million mob movies, but that’s okay in a film that’s more about message and situation than actual story. And what it may lack in plot, it more than makes up for in sharp, delicious dialogue that is all impeccably performed.
Small-time mobster Squirrel hires Frank and Russell to knock over a card game hosted by Ray Liotta’s Marky. Why are they so sure they’ll get away with it? Because Marky himself knocked over his only other previous game. Will everyone assume Marky was clever enough to assume no one would suspect him of being dumb enough to do it twice? Well, sort of. Once hot-shot hitman Jackie Cogan and his ambiguous associate (Richard Jenkins) become involved, through a series of conversations regarding Marky, Frank and Russell, the story edges into almost Burn After Reading territory; a lot of inexperienced criminals who think they have it all worked out.
Holding nothing back as far as being violent goes, Killing Them Softly contains some of the most brutal scenes in recent memory, with Ray Liotta in particular taking the beating of his life, but providing a career-best performance (outside of Goodfellas) to accentuate the process; a heart-stopping sequence of borderline sadism under the delicate direction of Dominik. Similarly, an execution later in the film is so visually perfect that it may single handedly have awards bodies shelling out awards for cinematography to Greig Fraser later this year (if not for this, then very possibly for Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming Zero Dark Thirty).
A collection of outstanding performances including a impressively sinister but charming turn from Pitt (who is fast becoming the DeNiro/DiCaprio to Dominik’s Scorsese) and potential supporting actor considerations in McNairy and Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly is an instant crime classic. Outside of Scorsese, no one has yet made a meaningful, elemental film about organised crime. Until now. Dominik could dominate the next 20 years of crime drama if he wanted to (a la Scorz), but based on his last two outings, no doubt his next feature will be a Victorian costume drama…with Brad Pitt.