New-Zealand Born Andrew Dominik is one of the best directors you’ve never heard of and with his filmography in Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James and now Killing Them Softly, he is one of a select few who have a talent for merging black comedy and character led drama. His third feature is based on the 1974 George V. Higgins Cogan’s Trade, only Dominik updated the setting to the modern day economic crisis.
Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are hired to hit a mob-protected poker game ran by a hapless Ray Liotta. They may be clad with cleaning gloves and a shotgun that stretches the very boundaries of “sawn off” but they carry out the raid successfully, by casting doubt on the man who runs and took advantage of the poker games previously. Sadly for the two career criminals they didn’t take into account that hitting gang-protected poker games would have incur the wrath of mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, Brad Pitt.
In updating this tale of masculinity, Andrew Dominik situates his characters into the modern financial crisis. From the erratic editing of the opening titles through much of the film, be it through car radios or televisions, there is footage of the two most recent American presidents delivering speeches about their country as a community and how it is every Americans duty to help the country progress.
Offset against this is the unsympathetic, scuzzy down-and-outers the film chooses to follow and how they have to treat money and work to get anywhere in life. As Brad Pitt’s character states, America isn’t a community; you’re on your own. The link between these two worlds is Richard Jenkins lackey to the corporate underworld. The message undoubtedly captures the cynicism of our era, the application however would have benefitted from being less blatant.
Everything else in killing them softly’s world is coated with a layer of scuzz, no character is romanticised, each and every person is a self-serving unpleasant individual whose relationship with woman is no less than demeaning. This is the world that Andrew Dominik wants to shine a light on; making his cast occupy a sliding scale of degeneracy is deliberate. Even a player like Brad Pitt doesn’t emerge unscathed, he may be better presented than others but his apprehension of doing the job and his eventual manipulation tactics mark him out as the most morally black character of all. With this and earlier film The Assassination of Jesse James, Dominik can consistently get the best from the superstar. With characters played by Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and James Gandolfini, the ensemble is fantastic. Gandolfini deserves high plaudits alongside Pitt playing an emasculated version of the archetype he has spent much of his career typecast as.
It’s through these unpleasant characters that the same dark sense of humour that characterised earlier film, Chopper, comes to the fore. Much of this humour is told through flashbacks when the characters are just talking to each other, whether it’s James Gandolfini expressing the nature of his relationship with women or Ben Mendelsohn telling Scoot McNairy what happened with his dog scheme. You may not be proud of yourself, but you will laugh.
Beside the comedy and the comment of American society, the other thing to take home fromkilling them softly is the violence. Like the players, the violence is hard, nasty and unpleasant. At one point, Pitt’s Cogan says that he likes to kill people from afar; up-close is gets messy, people start to plea for their lives, it’s embarrassing. There is one scene in which a brilliantly against type, Ray Liotta is brutally beaten. It’s not a pleasant scene to watch, encompassing all those ugly truths. Later the violence is done with Cogan’s ‘gentle approach to murder’, an ethos which is meaningless when the sporadic scenes of violence are nothing less than fast, aggressive and messy.
With Killing them softly Andrew Dominik continues to carve out an name for himself with a tightly crafted character led crime thriller that entertains and shocks with visceral impact at every level, whether it’s the violence, character moments or the black humour. Its abrupt ending and stylised flourishes may alienate the mainstream audience, everybody else will find themselves repulsed and entertained by a master storyteller.