Sunday, April 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly: Ain't That America?

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Director: Andrew Dominik

Reviewed: 21 April 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

The life of a killer, sometimes romanticized in the movies, has to be more like how it is depicted in "Killing Them Softly": grizzled, haunted men sit alone in sad hotel rooms or airport bars; conversations revolve as much about time spent in prison as about staying out of it; violence done to violent men by violent friends, onscreen or from a distance. A minimalist performance from Brad Pitt anchors the film, though it seems at times that he does more supporting work here as Jackie Coogan, a hit man sent out to protect criminal interests when a card game run by local hoods is robbed. Money must be made, and someone must pay. The guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), once bragged of hitting his own game years back, setting himself up for the fall when two enterprising young hoodlums Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) bust in with guns and ski masks. In keeping with the film's nihilistic tone, even a successful robbery translates into only a little bit of money soon spent, and the safest place for a criminal in this world seems to be jail. Coogan stalks the world like its own angel of death, executing the business end of the unseen criminal forces at work behind Boston (though it could not be more obviously New Orleans in my opinion).

Dominik's larger focus seems to be on critiquing the systems of capitalism and government which, like the mafia, cloak themselves in secrecy, and delegate their dirtiest work. Images of President Obama and Senator McCain loom over the shoulders of characters when they are outside; snippets of public radio and interviews about the 2008 fiscal crisis play inside cars and bars. A supporting cast of James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Shepard all do wonderful work, with the standout being Gandolfini's sad, beleaguered criminal who oozes volcanic rage; he has only two scenes but haunts the film. The extended robbery scene crafts effective tension, and a later scene with Liotta is punctuated by its attention to the giver of violence, not merely the recipient. I wanted to spend more time with Liotta or Jenkins or Gandolfini, but Dominik stays with Frankie and Russell and their inane, depressing conversations. Dominik allows himself a few flourishes: slow-motion shots of rain drops in a shoot-out in the rain with bullet-time; a camera mounted to a car door when it opens; Pitt's Coogan walking unmolested and undisturbed through a violent neighborhood with gunfire in the background. It is a chilling film.

"Killing Them Softly" is not about how Brad Pitt's character figures out who is responsible for the heist. That intelligence is handed out anticlimactically. The moral dilemma of the film is absent; Coogan does what he does and has reconciled himself to it. The only thing left to be discussed is the price. The obvious corollary is the American capitalist system, where unseen forces pull the strings and allow people to believe in their own autonomy and agency, profiting all the while and never suffering themselves. Dominik's larger point may be that our government and our elites are "killing us softly...from a distance" in a way that never allows for proper perspective or blame to be assigned. An ugly, gritty film with a great performance from Brad Pitt, "Killing Them Softly" is not the kind of film I wanted it to be or hoped it would be. And I think that is exactly what director Andrew Dominik intended.

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