Andrew Dominik, the Kiwi filmmaker behind dogged magnum opus The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford returned to screens this year alongside the perfectly coiffed Brad Pitt with another dose of savage Americana in Killing them Softly.
Based on George V. Higgins 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, it’s a grimy story of the insipid Boston underworld. Laundromat man by day, mid-level gangster by night Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) hatches a plan to knock over a mob-protected card game and frame the game’s crafty operator, Markie (Ray Liotta). He hires a couple of young hoods to do his dirty work: the anxiety riddled Frankie (Scooter McNairy) and his ex-con pal, the sweaty Aussie junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The job pays off, but the card playing mobsters have their bent attorney (Richard Jenkins) hire the enigmatic hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to clean things up and get their revenge.
Dominik makes the bare-bones crime story ooze with cool, with abstract slow motion shoot outs, hazy heroin binges. The sublimely inventive cinematography from DP Greig Fraser is a treat, with cameras attached to car doors and tracking shots all heavily influenced by Blaxploitation pictures like Black Caesar. It all sounds great too, with Pitt’s badass Cogan being introduced to the tun of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’. What a cast of heavies Dominik manages to wrestle in too, with Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta as the pusillanimous game organiser and, best of all, The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini as a nihilistic old hitman more committed to the bottle than his gun.
So far, so good, but Dominik inflates the hard-boiled story with some extraneous narrative flourishes. Lifting the film from the seventies to late 2008, we get the backdrop of financial meltdown and the presidential election. Only they’re not background concerns, ringed out instead on billboards, car radios and TV broadcasts. It’s all window dressing for the characters involved, who rarely pay attention to the orations, yet Dominik wants the audience to be made glaringly aware of the political allegory. Instead of wry satirical subtext, it’s ham-fisted, gross prophesy, an omen to these despicable men and their dog-eat-dog mentality.
Just like Peter Yates 1977 movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle – yet another adaptation of a Higgins novel – Killing Them Softly is an existential gangster drama, where gangsters are gangsters purely because they don’t know how to be anything else. Unlike that cult classic, Killing Them Softly‘s message of America’s social unrest hits like a repetitive thud around the head, crassly blending gruesome mob activity with hindsight-laden subtext. Whilst it may be one of the most visually ambitious films of the year, Dominik’s latest is so glaringly unsubtle with his commentary that the entertainment factor ends up obfuscated. The characters may be killed softly, but Dominik has no problem berating the audience.
PS – This has to be one of the most misleading marketing campaigns ever. See the film and then watch the trailer. Complete tonal overthrow.