To these eyes and ears, Andrew Dominik’s 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of the finest films of the last ten years. A stately, elegant piece of work, it quietly commanded respect and elevated Dominik into that higher tier of filmmakers who’s every subsequent work becomes noteworthy by association. That he proceeded to disappear from view only whetted my appetite. The rumours that he was adapting Cormac McCarthy’s Cities Of The Plain had me salivating… but then nothing. I stopped paying attention. And so Killing Them Softly arrives, for me, suddenly, and with a lot to live up to.
The brief run-up to the release of this movie gave me an inkling of what to expect. The (fantastic) trailer evoked a more rough-and-ready film, more akin to his breakthrough piece Chopper. Having romanticised the West, here the Australian director was coming back to the present, back to the criminal underbelly of society that he never really left behind. With cool-but-familiar music cues, dreary rain washed streets and slick-haired gangsters, this was going to be a violent film with a streak of cruel humour. And happily, I can attest that Killing Them Softly delivers, but what it delivers is very different to that grand masterpiece of five years ago.
This is a snappier, altogether meaner affair. And half the length of its predecessor. You can understand why that would prove attractive to Dominik. With its intimidating runtime, languid pace and protracted production, the idea of something simpler than Jesse James must’ve been incredibly alluring. Yes, Killing Them Softly feels like a lesser film, but a deliberate attempt to get out from under Jesse’s shadow. A line has been drawn in the sand. Dominik is moving on.
So let’s go with him.
Set four years ago, around the electoral race between McCain and Obama, Killing Them Softly shuffles a handful of players in the crime world, and then lets their misadventures unwind and intersect. In particular, two lowlifes (amiable, cautious-yet-greedy Scott McNairy and smack-addled sewer rat Ben Mendelsohn) get involved in a plot to rob a card game, a gambit that will land chief suspicion not on them, but on the game’s own organiser (Ray Liotta). With Coens-esque inevitability this doesn’t go to plan, and a man is hired to clean everything up. That man is Brad Pitt.
Pitt’s character is called Jackie Cogan. I know that because I looked it up afterwards. Point being, I didn’t grab it from the film. He appears in the story like an apparition. A shadow. Another of macho cinema’s Men With No Name. Pitt is starting to look his age, those world-weary lines starting to show on his face, and it suits the character to a T. Jackie is a hitter and he knows his game. He’s also tired of the people who don’t know it. The time wasters and the amateurs.
A younger man would not have worked in the role, and Pitt, pushing toward 50 now, is just right. I’d call it a return to form, but as of late he hasn’t really put a foot wrong. Nevertheless, he brings a memorable black heart to the role and gives it presence. Killing Them Softly is an ensemble piece, but Pitt makes his part feel like the lead.
Elsewhere, the presence of both James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola made me nostalgic for the glory days of The Sopranos. Gandolfini’s character in particular was a grim treat. A grotesque alcoholic who shares Pitt’s line of work, but has fallen foul of vice and bitterness. He is irredeemable, but also pitiable. A man doomed by himself. It is neat character touches like this that prop Killing Them Softly up, rising it above the standard gangster fare.
This is a bit of a scatty picture, with no real heroes, and a dogged sense of fate unwinding like a watch. Dominik’s gaze is exacting, and he could’ve coasted easily here, yet he adds flare throughout, as though using the film as a canvas upon which he can sketch ideas and techniques. The dissonant opening is one of the most arresting I can recall, stuttering the picture into life. A camera mounted to a car door gives an interesting effect to a late scene, whilst a heroin-addled conversation between McNairy and Mendelsohn is woozily captivating (though the Velvet Underground underscore feels a little too obvious).
Throughout the picture the Obama/McCain debate rages on, and commentary on economic crisis proves a canny counterpoint to the petty costs that stack up between criminals. I didn’t find this intrusive or particularly heavy-handed. If anything it added a frazzled touch of humour. “America is a business”, Jackie says. His business just so happens to be murder.
The modern world is cruel, as Dominik illuminates through Jackie, and is populated by the weak, the misogynistic and the unsympathetic. Wastrels and shrewd businessmen at every turn. Violent acts are portrayed, and portrayed graphically. But with a glint in the eye. It’s the same glint we caught in Killer Joe earlier this year. And if Killing Them Softly doesn’t glint quite so brightly, it is not for lack of trying. Certainly not a masterpiece, but definitely good enough for now.