It’s a testament to Australian director Andrew Dominik’s considerable story-telling abilities that a movie as nakedly cynical and aggressively repellent in its philosophy as Killing Them Softly is as satisfying as it is. Dominik adapted Killing Them Softly’s screenplay himself, from George V. Higgins’s novel of the same name, and it shows. The ambiguous, larger-than-life macho men in Dominik’s Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and now Killing Them Softly are all of a piece. They all have one foot in their own self-mythologizing headspaces and the other in the future they believe is just around the corner. But unlike those two earlier films, the macho-est man of all in Killing Them Softly knows exactly what the future holds—but he just doesn’t care.
The present of Dominik’s latest film is a dystopian version of contemporary America. Chest-thumping tough guys and hand-wringing power brokers abound, none as tough as they’d like others to think. This is especially true of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hitman hired to knock off two bottom-feeding hoods who rob a group of well-connected gangsters at an illegal poker game. Since this is the second time the games have been robbed, confidence in these illegal card games is at an all-time low. Business needs to pick up and fast. Enter Cogan, introduced with a tongue-in-cheek song cue of Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around.” Yes, Brad Pitt is God and the Economic Apocalypse is upon Obamerica. Heavy-handed, sure, but consistently self-serious? Not so much.
That having been said, Killing Them Softly can just as easily be characterized as a plaintive howl of disaffection with, according to Dominik, President Obama’s failure to deliver on his 2008 campaign’s promise of “change” and bipartisan unity. This brazen and largely idiotic lament drones in the background of Killing Them Softly’s loud and hearty heist-and-doomed-getaway narrative until the film’s last scene. Throughout, Dominik inserts snippets from televised and radio addresses where both George W. Bush and Obama, still a senator at the time, talk rhetorically about what needs to be done to fix America’s ailing economy. At the end, Dominik effectively slaps his viewers in the face (back-handed!) and dares them to like it. But until then, Dominik masterfully develops his film’s ultimately untenable thesis.
For example, the film’s song cues and fetishistically detailed slow-motion scenes of violence (they’re not really action scenes) lend an air of ambivalence to the film’s otherwise dour proceedings. Cues from Depression-era standards like “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” are sandwiched between songs like “Heroin” and “Windmills of Your Mind,” creating a weird ahistorical context in which every confrontation seems simultaneously over-dramatic and self-deflating.
Thankfully, Dominik is a great meat-and-potatoes visual story-teller. He paces scenes composed entirely of conversations, framing them with ostentatious care and dyspeptic whimsy: Killing Them Softly ultimately suggests Zodiac as directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Dominik also fleshes out his characters effectively, making them the human context for his film’s polemical and largely vague political posturing. The director draws striking parallels between Cogan’s character and his friend Mickey (James Gandolfini), a fellow hitman who’s gone to seed in just two years’ time, as well as with the two-bit robbers that Cogan is hired to kill. Killing Them Softly does fall apart completely in its last scene, in which Cogan venomously explains that America is “not a country: it’s a business,” smugly using the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the great unifier, owned and had sex with his slaves as proof. But until then, Dominik does a fantastic good job of selling curdled milk.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago.He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Cluband is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal.His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.