Framed against the 2008 Presidential election, in a world collapsing under the economic crisis, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly depicts the criminal underworld as a microcosmic representation of a crumbling America.
The gangster movie likes to revel in the past, the golden years of crime where the mobster lived as a king and the ebb and flow of economics had little impact on their world, Dominik brings the genre kicking and screaming into the modern age and shows that not even crime is recession-proof Much in the same way the people of America are disappointed or even betrayed by the actions of others, be they bankers or politicians, the characters that inhabit this world of mobsters and lowlifes are equally impacted by the thoughtless greed and deception of those around them. This is a vision of America as the ultimate experiment in Capitalist Darwinism; where every man is for himself and only out for what they can take.
The assortment of characters scraping together a living, take traditional gangster tropes and adapt them for these trying times. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is far from your typical mob hitman, breaking away from your cliched gangster soldier or your jumbled mess of neuroses. Jackie conducts himself like a tradesman, killing is nothing more than a service he offers. Pitt plays the part brilliantly, bristling with cynical frustration, dominating every scene he enters. There is no romance or style to the way Jackie Cogan operates; no swagger or samurai-like discipline, just an almost workmanlike meticulousness. A dogged determination to get paid at the end of the day.
The usual mob boss figure is now represented by a middle-man, played by the always great Richard Jenkins. His superiors are a faceless collection of men with a more corporate mentality, seemingly allergic to decisive action. They are gun shy, taking endless meetings on every minor step within a plan. Gone are the dramatic gestures of the old school Mafioso, even the crime lords of modern America have become compromised by an ever-narrowing market.
James Ganfolfini has a small but memorable role as a second hired hitman who has fallen on hard times, drinking and wallowing in self-pity, constantly reflecting on better times and delivering some marvelous monologues. The pathetic sadsack we see is a far cry from the icy cool demeanour he exudes when entering the movie; a perfect example of how Killing Them Softly peels back the layers of a mob archetype to show what the modern world has reduced them to.
Scoot McNairy, who made an instant impression with his work in Monsters, is great as one half of a bungling team of robbers, with Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn giving an entertaining turn as the other half. McNairy completely inhabits his role; his voice and entire body language feel genuine making him one of the most sympathetic figures in the film.
The other major character in the film is the city of New Orleans. Set in a post-Katrina city, the battered and decrepit streets and buildings complete Dominik’s message of a world on the brink of collapse. The film is not shy about beating its message into the audience; overlaying scenes with soundbites from the likes of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama is akin to slipping on brass knuckles and aiming for the bridge of the nose. It’s blunt but it needs to be, this is not a topic that should be handled with kid gloves. The closing line of the film is one of the finest ever put to film, as far as I am concerned, and puts a perfectly aggressive, cynical cap on the film. It’s a closer that will rattle around your head as you leave the cinema.
Dominik, who was last responsible for 2007′s The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, continues to evolve as a filmmaker. His artistic flourishes are simultaneously beautiful and visceral; scenes of violence are delivered in technically impressive ways that never undermine the sudden brutality of the act. Another wonderfully realised scene features a heroin-addled Ben Mendelsohn attempting to relay important information to a rattled Scoot McNairy, the way Dominik visualises Mendelsohn’s lapses of consciousness is a gorgeous sight to behold.
Despite all his remarkable visual artistry, Dominik’s greatest asset is his script. The film’s narrative is segmented, the pacing surprisingly mellow, but the entire thing hinges on conversations. The top-shelf cast help deliver these conversations and monologues with “career best” levels of conviction, making them every bit as engaging as the acts of violence.
It may not be the obvious masterpiece of Dominik’s predecessor but with its mix of social commentary and effortless cool, Killing Them Softly proves to be every bit as layered and rewarding. A smart, righteously furious political film that could well age into something even better.