Killing Them Softly

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It’s the Economy, Stupid
By Adam Nayman

Killing Them Softly
Dir. Andrew Dominik, U.S., The Weinstein Company

It’s a close call as to whether or not Killing Them Softly features the most literal-minded soundtrack cues of the year. In the other corner sits Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, a film that plays “Alcohol” by the Barenaked Ladies as the camera explores a hotel room containing alcohol and a bare-naked lady, and later cranks up the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under the Bridge” when a character decides to get high. That’s a pretty formidable one-two punch, but never underestimate Andrew Dominik, who sees Zemeckis’s junkie anthem and raises it. Yes, that is the Velvet Underground’s "Heroin" wafting into a room where people are shooting heroin.

Dominik also employs Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” to herald the arrival of his main character, a ruthless hitman played by Brad Pitt. The song nudges us that the character is Death personified, and that the director (or at least his music supervisor) has seen Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, which also used it as kind of portentous overture. And then, for the coup de grâce, he lets a tinny old version of the 1930s jazz standard “Paper Moon,” (sung by Cliff Edwards) drone through a car radio to hint that the character whose blood and brains are lining the upholstery died because his bullshit detector (“It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea”) was seriously out of whack.

The same could be said of any critic who gives an abjectly terrible movie like this a pass. For all of its aesthetic and political posturing, Killing Them Softly is a toothless creature—a cinematic paper tiger. Pitt makes for a telling emblem is this regard. Stalking around town in heavy boots and dark sunglasses, the actor is meant to cut an intimidating figure, but it always feels more like we’re watching a movie star play-acting tough than a character who uses those tactics to gain leverage on those around him. (For a good example of the latter, watch Matthew McConaughey’s almost identically conceived but infinitely more effective star performance in Killer Joe). It’s the same problem that marred Pitt’s work in his previous collaboration with Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), wherein this usually sly and resourceful actor allowed himself to be posed and photographed as an icon.

Arriving from out of town with a kill list supplied by shadowy money men, Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is an avatar of cutthroat professionalism, but he’s also very much the voice of reason—the perfect role for an actor who wants to give the impression of being outside his comfort zone while retaining his due gravitas. Informed that he’s got to rough up and then probably murder Markie (Ray Liotta), a mid-level hustler who is the top suspect in a recent card-game robbery, Cogan demurs to the first part: he doesn’t see the point in pounding on a guy who’s just going to get a bullet in the head afterwards. We’re supposed to be impressed by this simultaneous show of efficiency and sideways empathy, and to recognize something human in Cogan’s admission that he doesn’t like killing men he knows well because he can’t bear to hear them begging for their lives: “I like to kill them softly,” he explains.

With this in mind, everything in Killing Them Softly feels as loud as a bullhorn: the post-Katrina New Orleans backdrop (shifted from Boston in Charles V. Higgins’s 1974 source novel); the contemporary period-piece setting (the run-up to the 2008 election); and most ear-splittingly of all, the ostensibly subtextual hints that this tale of small-time hoods wiping each other out over little piles of cash is really a grand metaphor for American graft and greed. That this is hardly an original idea (cf. everyone from Hawks to Coppola) is beside the point: genre movies have been gauchely overreaching for significance since the moment it was suggested that they might be the ideal stealth vehicles for such urgent messages. What rankles here is the disparity been the high-handed tone of the lecture—a smug mixture of bemusement and sincere grievance—and the utter redundancy of the points being scored, both within the film itself and in relation to other movies that have worked over the same terrain.

For example, one only needs to watch the first scene, in which scraggly ex-cons Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) get their marching orders from wizened bottom-feeder Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) to get the broad strokes of what’s going on: that stupid, criminal people who buy into a very seductive American myth—that of upward mobility—will end up as the victims of its shadow-side reality, which is that the haves are murderously stingy about holding on to what’s theirs (even if it was stolen in the first place). The set-up is good enough: Squirrel wants the kids to rob Markie’s card game because he knows that Markie himself was secretly responsible for a previous heist, and that he’ll be summarily judged as the boy who cried wolf if it happens again. The juiciness of the scenario is dried out, however, by Dominik’s arid attempts at irony and symbolism. The trio’s conversation about crooks lining their pockets by robbing themselves and then publicly pleading poverty competes for our attention with a television set broadcasting talking-head rhetoric about the Wall Street bailout.

Dominik obviously isn’t trying to be subtle (I don’t think he has it in him to be restrained anyway), but stridency is not a noble end in and of itself, and definitely not when it gets in the way of the other things a director is supposed to be doing, like making a halfway compelling or entertaining genre film. It’s probably by design that Killing Them Softly has a sort of built-in detachment to its storytelling, with Frankie and Russell written off as dead men walking almost immediately after the robbery and Cogan moving leisurely through his predatory paces, but the preordained quality of the narrative is counterintuitive to the creation of suspense.

Usually when a movie commits as hard as this one does to “down time,” it’s either to show off its actors or to disguise the fact that there isn’t much going on. Here it’s both. Dominik trots out a wheezy James Gandolfini as Mickey, yet another contract killer whose pot-bellied seediness is presented in counterpoint to Cogan’s sleekness and whose sole purpose is to look ugly and say disgusting things—as if embodying all of the rot building up around the story’s edges. Instead of fortifying the film’s texture, however, Gandolfini injects notes of falseness—another recognizable star, happily slumming it. In a film that has already judged all of its characters as being either fatally stupid (Frankie and Russell), haplessly dumb (Liotta’s broken-nosed patsy), or calculatingly callous (Richard Jenkins’s mob handler), another conspicuously repulsive specimen is simply overkill, especially when his scenes are just gold-bricking.

When Killing Me Softly isn’t trying too hard to be casual—as with Mickey and Cogan talking ruminatively about the mystery of women in a hotel room—it’s straining to impress, as in a mid-film assassination set-piece that finds Dominik swinging for the fences: darkened streets, headlight glare, heavy rainfall, and slow-motion images of bullets shattering car windows and skull domes. Reviewing the film at Cannes, Todd McCarthy called the sequence “an explosion of breaking glass and penetrating bullets so elaborate and prolonged that it resembles a self-standing art installation,” which is quite accurate except that he seemed to mean it as a compliment—as if stopping an already logy film dead to luxuriate in the ludicrously overcranked aesthetics of violence were anything but obnoxious. Forget that the character being killed hasn’t been built up enough to warrant this kind of faux-operatic, Sonny-at-the-tollbooth sendoff, or forgive that Dominik’s CGI-assisted camera choreography pales in comparison to, say, the rain-slicked shoot out in James Gray’s We Own the Night, and the question still remains: what is a scene that looks for all the world like an outtake from Dredd 3D doing in a movie that means to place violence in a real-world context and then treat it gravely, as a symptom of some larger social ills?

The answer, of course, is that it’s giving Dominik a chance to get his directorial rocks off, just as he did in a more respectable (but no less irritating) way with the widescreen seventies moves of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a movie whose title takes longer to say than its contents beyond Roger Deakins’s characteristically superlative cinematography merit consideration). That for him to have fun somebody onscreen has to get either literally or figuratively obliterated is one thing (he also contrives a trip-out scene that hijacks the phan-tastically stoned perspectives of Gaspar Noé), but it’s the way that his showing off is bound up in a kind of piousness that really seals the deal.

As it winds down, Killing Them Softly acts—mostly through Pitt—as if it’s been telling some hard truths about a country ruled by the profit motive even though it's freely indulged its own mercenary impulses. (If the film flops, it’s not because it’s easy to go broke making a movie about white guys wiping each other out with shotguns.) Cogan’s assertion that “crime is the business of America,” intoned pointedly over footage of Barack Obama’s victory speech, fuses the character’s self-congratulation with the filmmaker’s; both seem certain that there is a reward laying for them for pointing this out. From the first time he steps onscreen there’s no doubt that Cogan is going to get paid, but anybody with something better to do than be condescended to for 97 minutes should feel comfortable doing their part to leave his director holding the (paper) bag.

Oh, and there’s a final awful musical selection, over the end credits: Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”