Lost In the Crevices – Brett’s Overlooked Film of the Week: “Killing Them Softly” (2012)
“Killing Them Softly” is stylish filmmaking, but it’s also a reminder that there are too many films that do it so much better
Caught squarely in the center of last year’s prime Oscar contenders, Andrew Dominik’s latest feature–“Killing Them Softly”–is a highly stylized, pseudo-noir gang banger that begs to be more than it leads us on to be. With that said, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t stand up to its bunk mates that jockeyed for preeminence in last winter’s awards season surge, but it does, however, contain enough pizzazz to be an entertaining 97 minutes of tough guy, wannabe “Pulp Fiction”-meets-“Goodfellas.”
As the film opens, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is tailed by a slow motion tracking shot that’s interspersed with half-heard sound bites of Barack Obama. As Frankie emerges into the daylight, he descends upon a post-Katrina landscape littered with desolation and other images we’ve become accustomed to seeing since 2005’s atrocity. This, however, is not 2005. It’s 2008, just as the devastating financial crisis descends upon the country.
It is with this backdrop that Dominik tells the rest of his story, and the decision remains a rather curious one. At first, “Killing Them Softly” flaunts–ever-so suavely– its combination of darkly comedic, hard-hitting dialogue and wince-a-minute violence. Then, it’s as if Dominik begins chomping hastily at the bit to take right turns: becoming intertwined in this volatile atmosphere is the weight of heavy handedness, and what begins filling the gaps are not-so-sparsely placed political overtones–-a thematic decision that creates a frustratingly unfocused feel for the film’s remainder.
One night, at the absentminded orders of Johnny Amato, Frankie and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a local mob-hosted card game being managed by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The amateurs escape with an abundance of cash (stowed away ever-so officially in metallic briefcases), but it’s not so squeaky clean, and, from here, it all begins to bounce around familiarly, like something we’ve seen ten times before from better films of the genre. Markie, who has stuck up one of his own games before, is blamed again during the second go around. He isn’t “stupid” and, hasn’t, of course, done it again (would someone actually be so ignorant?). The mob, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with the truth: business has been disrupted again, and somebody has to pay and, business, as we all know, is business.
Enter Driver (Richard Jenkins), a middleman messenger for a currency-laden something-or-other that’s investing in the high stakes poker games. He’s requested to meet with Jackie (Brad Pitt) to discuss a three man hit–-a final, fatal solution to the problem of disrupted business. Throughout the film, the two meet under abandoned overpasses in some far-flung corner of deserted New Orleans. It’s decided, through several sequences of admittedly witty banter (mostly spoken by Pitt and punctuated by Jenkins’ facial expressions) that Jackie will make the hit on Frankie. Two of his fellow comrades will “rough up” Markie while mob boss Mickey (played by James Gandolfini, who, it seems, directly re-assumes the role of Tony Soprano) will make a hit on Russell–the one that Jackie doesn’t know.
At the conclusion, everyone who is expected to meet their demise does. What did we expect? It was foretold from the beginning and there does, rather savagely, remain an abundance of violence and inexorable killing throughout the films’ duration to guide us to this outcome, but, to what end? If its purpose is to show us how merciless the killer and the act of killing can be, there are better films that do so in more thorough and impactful manners. Dominik’s film also revolves around intermittent scenes of witty dialogue that punctuate it with sardonic, black humor. Some of it makes for grin cracking, but, again, there are films better known for utilizing this device more effectively (“Pulp Fiction” is certainly one of them).
On another note: do gang bangers actually ride around all day listening to political news? Do they really sit around drinking and playing cards while CSPAN loops on television sets? This is yet another attempt by Dominik to hit a larger, more encompassing point home. By doing this, he makes a conscious effort to lace the action with political coerciveness–-a stylistic choice that makes “Killing Them Softly” seem like it’s aiming to exist as some sort of sociopolitical profundity rather than a polished gangster flick.
While the film does swing and miss repeatedly, there are some noticeable bright spots. Dominik, as he proved with his previous feature, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,” has a knack for style. The utilization of slow motion during Jackie’s drive-by murder of Markie are particularly flashy and well-composed. Instead of the sprawling vastness of the untamed wilderness (as in “The Assassination”), Dominik shoots the New Orleans underbelly in dark, muted tones–a technique that effectively portrays the darkness of the lives its characters’ inhabit. But, while Pitt turns out yet another strong performance, Ben Mendolsohn nearly steals the show. Much like his role in “Animal Kingdom,” he exudes a squalid eeriness that’s underscored by a total lack of compassion or human understanding. Pitt’s Jackie is calmly self-asserting, and there’s latent savagery behind his cool reserve: it only surfaces at the precise moment of its necessity.
After it has all come to pass, “Killing Them Softly” tends to favor style over substance, and, to its detriment, tries at once to exist as two distinctly different things. Is it a commentary on the gauntlet of merciless killing found in organized crime, or a tale of the supposed moral and political corruption of America? If, somehow, it’s the latter, one must ask: is that necessarily a profound observation? Isn’t it a commonly held opinion that American capitalism functions like the businesses it produces? I digress.
If you’re looking for 97 minutes of relatively hard-hitting entertainment, knock yourself out. If, though, you’re looking for something a bit more substantive, find Dominik’s second feature, “The Assassination”–that film is borderline great, and, too boot, is one of the best of the decade.