Andrew Dominik, who sent Brad Pitt to the peak of his career with The Assasination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, one of my favourite films of 2007, reteams with the actor in Killing Them Softly. He’s also managed to rope in James Gandolfini of The Sopranos, Richard Jenkins of The Visitor, Ray Liotta of Goodfellas and cast them in what appears to be a crime thriller. Tell me it’s not an irresistible combination. Take into account that the film, not only screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival but was even nominated for a Palme d’Or. It has just everything going for it. And I was going to be seeing it two months before the Rottentomatoes consensus was up. I was excited at this rare opportunity.The film slid through quickly. I liked it what I saw but I had my doubts. In trying to grasp what exactly this was about, I only seemed to be reaching out for thin air. Somehow, I couldn’t fully comprehend the film and it was very tempting to dismiss it as an action commercial, serving as (no more than) a star vehicle for Brad Pitt. The film digs deeper than that. But it’s a dense way ahead. And by the time you get to the core of the film, you probably won’t care. I, however, decided to stick with it and give it another shot not long after my first. I found substance.
Killing Them Softly opens with a smart move. Three guys decide to pick up on already misdirected targets. They’re going to rob a gambling place, armed. The place belongs to Markie Tratman (Ray Liotta). Markie once decided to rob his own joint for fun. He paid two men to enter his joint and rob it. He even confessed later to the men that it was a joke. He stole from his own joint but didn’t touch their money. Plus, the men like him, so they let him off the hook. If it happens again, he’s going to be the prime suspect. Either he’s too dumb to pull this trick again or he believes he’s too smart to be able to use that as an alibi. In any case, he’s going to be fingered. These guys are gonna get away. The guy heading the operation, Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), explains that they gotta act fast or someone else is gonna get the idea. “We’re not the only smart guys in the world, you know?”
This is a Pitt show, all the way. As Jesse James, the actor might have seen through you, known what you were thinking and waited for you to strike, but here he’s more cool than intimidating. His character, Cogan, is a thinking cynic. Everyone in this unprofessional crime world is held back from saving themselves by mixed feelings. But this guy, he’s got a compartment to shelve all these feelings (be it good or bad) and act on his power of thought, alone. It’s what makes him a survivor in the trade. And once again, we have Pitt, effortlessly playing himself. But Cogan’s a hero with his head on his shoulders and ahead of his time.
There’s a strong supporting cast at play here, with Gandolfini having the longest screen-time after Pitt. His character, Mickey, is summoned when Cogan wants him to ‘take care’ of someone for him. He’s introduced like a giant bulldog difficultly dragging itself to a feast. Mickey’s a mess. He’s breached his bail, cannot stop drinking and having sex with hookers, and is in love with a hooker from the past. Cogan can’t stand it.
Dominik lets Killing Them Softly build nice and slow. And then shocks us with stylized, bloody violence. Nevertheless, he also takes his chances with some gimmicks that appear to be intentionally inserted... out of a need for fun? He uses slow motion and classical music to put an end to Markie, a move that’s inconsistent with the film’s pre-established tone. There’s dialogue comprising mostly of pointless chatter, telling us less about the characters’ personalities and more about where they come from.
After my first viewing, the title seemed to encompass little more than a piece of dialogue explaining the meaning of its title as opposed to developing the character. After a re-watch, I found it interesting and realized the director’s need to keep things subdued. But, as I have said above, you probably wouldn’t be bothered giving this a re-watch. And for that, the film is more to blame than the viewer. It’s a fine film but if you enter this expecting another Jesse James, you will be underwhelmed.
From the posters and the social commentary in the background, it appears that the film has quite a bit to say regarding American Capitalism. Dominik believes that cynicism translates to success in a capitalistic world. He believes it is a necessity in a country that leaves you out on your own, to feed yourself. Getting your hands dirty is the price you have to pay for security. These themes remain buried deep beneath the stylized, bloody surface of the film. But Dominik reminds you unsubtly from time to time that there’s a treasure you should probably dig up to find.