Directed By: Andrew Dominik
Written By: Andrew Dominik, George V. Higgins
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini
Movies and Mobsters have worked in tandem to provide us some amazing entertainment and high-end cinema. In fact the crime genre has yielded some of the greatest movies of all time. Goodfellas, The Godfather, and countless others have popularized the crime family lifestyle. Writer/Director Andrew Dominik’s latest film Killing Them Softly uses a framework we are familiar with to develop an allegorical narrative that responds to the political and social climate of recent years. Using the Presidential Election and Financial Collapse of 2008 as its backdrop the film designs a metaphorical crime story full of intrigue and quality performances. Dominik removes the glorification from the mob mentality that we commonly find with this genre. His forceful direction relentlessly pokes at the audience as if he hopes for a response of rage and frustration. That request will be answered by many, but those who appreciate his boisterousness desires will find entertainment in the film’s darkly cynical context. Subtlety is shoved aside to manufacture a premise lacking any attempt at nuance. While it certainly doesn’t succeed at every level what does work makes this a step above a normal run of the mill crime thriller.
The story is persistently playing catch-up as the themes are firmly placed in the foreground. Unfortunately your engagement becomes muddled in this diatribe of disillusionment. We see a man walking alone on a barren road that reeks of despair with Presidential Billboards promising the impossible planted firmly overhead. Every mobster or wannabe hitman has a strong effectuation with NPR and News Talk Radio. Political messages of renewed hope and confidence play on the radio as we watch the reality of our civilization crumble. With everything thrown at you so vigorously it feels like you’re stuck in a well crafted campaign commercial. I was almost expecting the director to appear on screen to announce, “He approves this message”. While it is a welcome sight to see a director go beyond the normal parameters of the genre, in this case that breaking from the norm was done quite clumsily.
It seems to subscribe to the theory that the loudest argument is the one that wins. That argument does maintain a strong connection to the films story as the mob, like America, is attempting to regain its confidence. Big parts of their economical framework are these illegal high stakes card games. Most view these games as untouchable but one man was just daring enough to hold one up. Games are placed on hiatus and the flow of cash begins to slow. Later it was discovered the person who robbed the game was the same person who set it up. Surprisingly that revelation was met with laughs not bullets, and the games start up once again. With these card games we begin to see a few things. For one we see Andrew Dominik chisel away the glamour often associated with this way of life. Instead taking place in a well-to-do casino or a fortified mansion they are in the dingy backrooms of nameless buildings with bare walls and uncomfortable seating. We also begin to see this blatant juxtaposition of the political climate of 2008 and what was really occurring in the doldrums of our society. He treats the mob like a cooperate entity full of dysfunctional middle men and a need to maintain a public image.
Confidence is once again shaken when some dimwitted criminals played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn hit up another card game, thinking it will be pinned on the person who robbed the first one. The mob brings in Jackie, played by Bradd Pitt, to discover who did it and take them out. Pitt gives a fantastic performance as the one guy trying to clean up this mucky situation. His delivery is sharp with an attitude that cuts through the mess and gets to the point. Some of the best moments are with him and Richard Jenkins, who plays Driver the mobs version of a corporate middleman. We see that even the mob makes people go through channels before any decision can be made. Their conversations were both hilarious and one of the few times the political commentary actually worked. Mainly due to the fact that it was a fresh take on a common situation.
Another standout performance was James Gandolfini as a hitman brought in to help finish the job. When Gandolfini shows up in anything chances are he’s part of the mob in some way. I’m certain this casting choice was a purposeful one meant to play with our expectations. When he arrives our minds immediately connect the dots to where the film will be going. Fortunately it goes a completely different direction. Dominik removes the invincibility often associated with these characters. Death is feared and punches are felt. The violence is limited but effective. When you see a man get beaten it brings this stark veracity that makes you feel guilty for watching. Though there is a slow motion assignation that almost contradicts that notion. The scene looks beautiful, but goes on comically long as if Dominik was mocking our desires for stylistic violence.
Dominik also plays with the audience in how the plot is carried out. Much of the film is dialog heavy and revelations come to us secondhand. I enjoyed this constant battle that Dominik puts us through. He never allows us to have a strong grasp on what will happen next. There is a great moment between Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn where vital information is hanging in the balance. Unfortunately for McNairy this information is slowly being revealed to him by a drugged out Mendelsohn. We share his frustration as we too have been yearning for something to move the story forward. At times it feels like we are in an elaborate prank design by Dominik meant to make us rethink our outlook on how the world works. While those ambitions aren’t nearly as effective as the film wishes them to be inside this experience is a well crafted crime film.