Whispering Through A Loudhailer: Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012) – cinema review
Ambitious and atmospheric, but undone by its insistence on explaining its themes at every opportunity. There’s no point singing softly through a megaphone.
Killing Them Softly
(Andrew Dominik, 2012)
Titles say a lot, those of Andrew Dominik’s films more than most. In just three films, Dominik has established a reputation as a maker of thoughtful, subversive treatments of crime whose violent-sounding, B-movie titles (Chopper, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) are set in sharp relief by the more ambiguous, atmosphere treatment of the criminal’s lifestyle and environment. The choice of name of his latest film goes out of its way to acknowledge the gap. No longer is this Cogan’s Trade – the name of the source novel – but Killing Them Softly, a tantalising mix of rough and smooth.
It’s a shame, then, that this title proves to be something of a warning call; it’s a little too self-aware, and the accompanying film sees a talented director in thrall to his own hype. His first two films highlighted an ambition far removed than most post-Tarantino bullet-merchants, but Killing Them Softly overeggs Dominik’s style, with its fragmented narrative structure, insistence on focussing on character ambience over plot, and promotion of subtext to aggressive tour guide of the movie’s themes.
On paper, it’s simple enough. There’s a heist; the city’s crime bosses hire Brad Pitt’s Cogan to exact payback. The slim storyline expands to allow Dominik to examine the gaps. What drives this world? What motivates these people? Having decided, reasonably enough, that it’s all about money, Dominik updates the 70s novel to New Orleans, 2008, a symbolic place – trashed by Katrina, in thrall to financial meltdown, curiously hopeful about Obama’s chances.
The result is fatally undermined by Dominik’s insistence that we get the message, wringing the film like a sponge to try and mine every last drop of profundity. The heist is conducted in near-silence, save a Presidential debate on the telly. When characters meet in a bar, Obama or Dubya are pontificating on the economic crisis. The lack of subtlety spreads like a disease until the film ends with Pitt giving a climactic speech that feels like he’s reading from the York Notes to Killing Them Softly. Meanwhile, the music cues carry less ambiguity than those on The X Factor. Pitt’s arrival is marked by the fire-and-brimstone pronouncements of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around, while frankly there should be a law that thou shalt not marry a scene of somebody shooting up to The Velvet Underground’s Heroin.
The frustration is that Dominik has alighted on a genuinely interesting idea, and worked out how to film it. The idea is to remind us that murder can be a commodity like any other, and one whose practitioners face the same troubles as anybody else during a recession. The story deliberately mitigates against a clean through-line by being set in a messy world of barter and betrayal. Dominik is more interested in the downtime than the actual executions, so opts for a series of deadpan, Becketian monologues in which Pitt converses with colleagues, from Richard Jenkins’ suitably chilly, corporate middle-man, to dishevelled James Gandolfini, whose middle act cameo as a depressed hitman who’d rather do anything but make a hit nails Dominik’s ironic brief.
Yet the casting of Gandolifin, alongside Ray Liotta as a sadsack criminal, highlights the precarious balance of Dominik’s position – wanting to subvert the usual clichés but still bound by commercial constraints to cast (even if against type) the stars of The Sopranos and Goodfellas. Dominik’s instincts are divided: an ugly beating later gives way to a stylised, slow-motion hit that is totally out of place amongst the otherwise scuffed realism, while an experimental addict’s POV scene is hilarious but trying too hard for cinematic cool. The film is at its most authentically rancid and rancorous when it’s just talking shit with dealing with the petty crims that Cogan has been sent to stop; as played (with commendable gnarliness) by Scott McNairy and Ben Mendehlson, these are plausibly desperate men, throwbacks to those noir movie hoodlums that Elisha Cook Jr once played. But then Cogan turns up, and he’s Brad Pitt, whose self-consciousness about being an A-lister in a film about also-rans leads to a noticeable reticence to get involved: he doesn’t appear at all in the opening half-hour, and he’s not exactly busting a gut when he does