Review: Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly' Drives Message Hard and Well
by Jeremy Kirk
November 30, 2012
The first word we hear someone speak in director Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is President Obama saying the word "America." The 2008 presidential election is a strange stage to set for a movie about the Mob or whatever it has become in modern times, but Killing Them Softly is a fresh take on the American gangster film, blending a hard-edged story about violent men doing violent things to improve their status with a corporatizing theme that sits like jagged bricks. The film is by no means subtle, however, the best gangster movies aren't, and Brad Pitt's lead hitman character Jackie Cogan is one for the ages. Read on!
Cogan is an enforcer who prides himself on being the best at what he does. He's of a bygone era where people smoke and organized crime handled situations the old fashioned way, usually resulting in spilled blood. But when a card game is knocked over by three idiotic and, deservedly so, low-level crooks, Cogan can't simply find them, whack them, and set the underground world back on its temperamental course.
This is why he meets with a figurehead for the white collar side of the Mob played by Richard Jenkins. Sitting in a parked car under an underpass, the two bounce ideas off of each other as to the best way to handle their current situation, Cogan wanting action and the corporate man thinking about what's best for "the public angle and all that." It's enough debating and boardroom discourse to make any member of the Mob's old ways to lose his cool.
It also drives the velocity of action way down. Dominik, the man behind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, isn't interested in fast-paced action and a high body count. His former film would suggest as such. Instead, he builds on the characters, makes every bullet count, and structures Killing Them Softly in such a way as to put a mirror in front of both the current state of capitalism and how that relates to organized crime. Gangsters steal singles off diner tables in this film. They steal and sell small dogs here. And while every nickel and dime counts for the people at the bottom, the nameless faces in suits decide who live and who dies. Like I said, it's not subtle.
But Dominik's lack of guile adds a texture to Killing Them Softly that few directors can achieve and, God forbid, sustain. Jesse James was dripping with atmosphere, almost as if you were watching the film through the warped glass window of a 19th century saloon. Killing Them Softly is definitely slicker, more vibrant, and that element combined with its on-the-nose subtext builds a pulpy quality around the dealings at hand. This is hard-edged pulp to be sure, and when Dominik's characters get violent, they get brutal. And when Killing Them Softly gets brutal, the cinematography and sound mixing join together in some mean sequences. This film currently has the honor of hardest ass-kicking to watch.
Such scenes make you fully aware of the control the director - Dominik also adapted the screenplay from a novel, Cogan's Trade, by George V. Higgins - has over his action. The pacing of the film leaves a bit more to be desired, hanging on scenes longer than necessary and spending too much time on characters who add little. There's definitely a hierarchy to the characters in Killing Them Softly, and all of the different facets of the business world are accounted for; the amateurs, the pros, the over-the-hill elders, and the suits. James Gandolfini shows up late as an aged hitman, well past his prime and fully on his way to an alcoholic meltdown. We spend too much time on this character who adds more to the subtext than he does the story, and Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano doesn't have the charm it once did.
While Pitt is the star, and he plays Cogan with a precision the character requires, it's Scoot McNairy as the nervous and definitely amateurish Frankie who does battle for every scene. The actor is having a good year with strong turns here, in Argo, and in the upcoming Promised Land, and every time the actor appears for the first time in a film, it takes a moment to recognize him. McNairy wraps himself in his characters, changing physical appearance to match the skittish Frankie. This is also the guy who made a believable leading man in 2010's Monsters, and every time his name comes up in the future, it'll be a performance that arouses interest.
Here, though, McNairy almost makes you forget for a few of Killing Them Softly's 97 minutes that Brad Pitt is the star here. Those minutes don't fly by, either, and even with this brisk run-time, about 10 minutes worth of fat could have been chopped. That's not to say Killing Them Softly doesn't completely work as an anti-capitalist statement - or pro-capitalist statement depending on how you feel about Jackie Cogan - disguising itself as a gangster picture. Neither subtle nor optimistic, it's a film you have to admire for the way it drives its message in like a nail. It would be obvious to say that nail gets driven into your wallet, but hey, if Andrew Dominik isn't going to be subtle, why should I?
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10