Review: Killing Them Softly

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Andrew Dominick’s Killing Them Softly is one of the very few films I’ve ever seen start off on a seriously (and intentional) atonal note. As a camera waddles behind a lowlife through an outdoor hallway, Senator Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 echoes in the streets. While the camera slowly moves in on its subject, the film cuts back and forth to its title, one word at a time, as distorted static violently battles the senator’s idealistic words. All this is to suggest that the title of this film may be the most cozy aspect of the entire ordeal, for Killing Them Softly is far from a pleasant experience. However, that statement should not be mistaken as a critique. Andrew Dominick has crafted a violent, angry piece of cinema, a deliberately blunt weapon against the perceived notion of what America has become.

The microcosm of America in Killing Them Softly is 2008 New Orleans, still healing from the deep, infected wounds of Hurricane Katrina. In a nondescript part of town, the mob runs everything, and unseen higher ups have every rook and pawn at their disposal. When a midlevel man known as “The Squirrel” plans on taking down a card game with high stakes, the entire local criminal economy is set to collapse. He hires two bottom feeders, played with combating itchiness and obliviousness by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively. The heist takes off seemingly as planned, with the blame falling upon the organizer, Mark Trattman (a much missed Ray Liotta). However, when it becomes clear to the powers that be that Trattman is not the offender, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) swoops in to deliver justice. As Cogan, Pitt is at his most exacting and ruthless, and continues a hot streak present ever since he teamed up with Dominick for 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unlike Jesse James in that film, however, Pitt’s Cogan has very direct intentions for his work here. What is incredible about this film, even in the company of so many other gangster pictures, none of the characters are likable, especially a New York thug played by James Gandolfini. Where in other classics, we learn to love or at least respect Henry Hill or Tony Montana, no redeeming qualities are found in any of these skewed souls, yet we can’t turn away. Thankfully, the film has a sense of humor, albeit ink black.

What truly makes Killing Them Softly stand out from gangster cinema and films this year is the cinematic bravado that Dominick displays in nearly every scene. From rigging cameras onto car doors to produce violent, jarring movements, to a car crash so brutal yet aesthetically pleasing, and hypnotic editing rhythms from scene to scene, Dominick is very much in the dominion of auteurism and it gives the film a clear separation of style. Characters aren’t just dirty, they’re downright grungy. Beat downs and deaths aren’t just bloody, they’re disturbingly casual. Perhaps Jackie Cogan is looking to avoid getting too deep in the dirt when he explains that killing them softly, from a distance saves him any emotional fuss. Of course, he can’t linger in the shadows forever. Some criticism has been leveled at this film for being too heavy handed with its allegory of the 2008 economic crisis and the election of President Obama, and the point can be occasionally too blunt. (It should be said, that there are other great filmmakers such as Godard who also were very direct about their social critiques.) Nevertheless, the social critique works, and as Cogan makes his way around town, he finds himself increasingly alone in his thinking of America solely as a business, for as it crumbles, so do its citizens. Its a deeply nihilistic outlook, an even darker version of America than the one seen by Schrader and Scorsese in Taxi Driver. For all of the unification that hope and change brought to 2008, Jackie Cogan is the other side of the coin, a side of America we’d rather not see but should accept, a cynic whose rebellion against communion is the only way he manages to survive.

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~ by romancinema on November 30, 2012.

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