Why do we go to the movies? That, the truthfully age old question, has been asked by many a critic, college professor and just about anyone with at least a fleeting appreciation for the art of cinema, and the answers vary. Is it to partake in a discussion with an artist, or is it for the purest form of escapism? Well, if you’re looking to escape into a world of gangsters and bearded Brad Pitt when walking into a theater for Andrew Dominik’s latest film Killing Them Softly, you may be a tad bit surprised. Dominick’s thriller doesn’t take issues plaguing this very nation lightly, he takes these issues on with a flamethrower.
From the opening frames; title cards scored to white noise intercut between shots introducing us to a criminal, Russell, scored to President Barack Obama’s speech from the DNC in 2008, this is as angry and vital a thriller as we’ve seen this year. Russell, played by The Dark Knight Rises star Ben Mendelsohn, meets the man who appears to be our lead, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) as they are about to meet a man with an intriguing idea. According to their boss, Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), there is a chance to hit a seemingly high stakes poker set up, without ever seeing any repercussions. However, after things seemingly go swell, a loose lip starts to sink their ship, and Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to clean up this mess. Directly, almost to a fault, looking at the increasingly transparent lies and failures of this very government and economic system, Killing Them Softly isn’t truly an angry feature film. It’s a rabid pit bull, ready to bite the head off of anyone who doesn’t just shut up and pay the damn man.
Director Andrew Dominik is the film’s greatest shining light. While his script for the film may very well be hamfisted and heavy handed, it’s in this blunt instrument of a screenplay that much of the film’s vitality is found. Wearing its anger and frustration on its sleeve, throughout the film various speeches and newscasts can be heard, or campaign signs can be seen, often times playing to blackly comedic chuckles. Positing that while politicians shove hope and change down our throats, they sit in back rooms with their thumbs up their rear ends bickering like school children, Killing Them Softly says as much throughout its runtime. While blunt however, the film is also genuinely comedic, if bleakly so, adding to what may very well be one of the denser releases we’ve seen all year.
And, as seen in his previous films (particularly The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford), Dominik is not a visual slouch either. Featuring beautifully grimy photography from Greig Fraser, the type of photography that isn’t afraid to a world of sweat and angst but instead revels in it, Killing Them Softly is a beautifully crafted feature film, especially in those moments of experimentation from Dominik. Making various artistic choices, Dominik, when at his most playful, is one of the most inspired filmmakers around, and this film is living, fire-breathing proof of that. Be it a beautifully rendered (if slightly too long) slow motion montage near the middle of the film or a smoke and firework filled tracking shot near the end, this is easily one of the most kinetic and visually entertaining films you’ll see this fall.
However, the performances don’t quite do the film justice. Brad Pitt stars here, and is fine. As busy an actor as we have today, Pitt isn’t allowed to rest here, always in some sort of motion. This lack of nuance really does the character a bit of a disservice, but his charm, charisma and swagger carry this character to the finish line. James Gandolfini is great, but ultimately wasted here, as is Ray Liotta, who is given truly nothing to do here. Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are really superb, and their interchanges are enjoyable, but again, the film isn’t so much a character or actor set piece as it is a meditation on a time, a place and a mood.
Killing Them Softly is far from a crowd pleaser. In your face and violent, both physically and intellectually, Andrew Dominik has crafted in this film a breathtaking and often times histrionic meditation on a time period where the lies fed to this nation aren’t even hidden any more. As we near a so called ‘fiscal cliff,’ the backdoor bickering between Democrats and Republicans proves that while we may be told we are the United States Of America, we are all simply on our own. And Dominik isn’t ready to go down without one hell of a raucous and audacious fight.