Andrew Dominik’s most recent film before Killing Them Softly was of course The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a monumental American epic that went on for close to three hours and felt like it could have continued forever. Even when Jesse is killed, Robert Ford is still around and the movie shows no signs of wanting quick closure-as if it’s caught under the same spell as we are.
Now for Dominik’s third film (his first was Chopper 2000 picture that’s not talked about much anymore) he’s tightened things up to a quick 96 minutes, moved from the Old American West to the modern city, and prudently held onto his star from Jesse James, Brad Pitt.
That Pitt is in the film and playing once again a criminal is emblematic of the fact that though in many ways these are very different films both structurally and narratively, Dominik has still maintained an interest in telling stories dominated by men who use violence to establish legacy. And when I say dominated by men, I mean literally. The closest thing to a substantial female role in Jesse James was a brief appearance by Zoey Deschanel near the end. Here the only females are hookers—unromantic, unhappy, cash-hungry.
There’s not really a place for women in Dominik’s world of hardened street criminals, and if there is he’s certainly not going to waste time with them. Here he’s all about business: men smoking, drinking, killing, fighting, making money, and talking about smoking, drinking, fighting, killing and making money. At the start we get two small-time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) who are enlisted to rob a poker room. The same room had recently been held up by its proprietor, a man named Markie (Ray Liotta, doing his best work maybe since Goodfellas), who later admits to the theft without suffering any immediate consequences. Frankie and Russell however know that if they rob the place, Markie will be blamed for it.
This sets up the rest of the film, which involves Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan arriving and making sure Markie and the two thieves are taken down in order to keep the mob on good terms with the local gambling scene. Jackie is cold, calculating, and cynical. He hates sentimentality, both in the American and personal sense. He explains his disdain for the emotional side of a murder, when the victim starts to weep, which is why he likes shooting from a distance, “killing them softly.” As for America, he sees the idea that we’re one nation, a community of equality as bullshit. “In America, you’re on your own,” he says in an intense and memorable diatribe at the film’s close.
Much has been made of Dominik saturating the film with voiceovers and television footage of political speeches during the 2008 election. Because the housing market crash we hear plenty about the economic struggle, as well as the aforementioned “one nation” American idealism addresses from Barack Obama. While well intended and at times appropriate, the overall effect is definitely forceful and obvious. Dominik certainly is on to something with the idea of showing both how criminals are influencing the economy and also how their world is far removed from normal society. So it’s understandable that Jackie would scoff at the president’s optimistic orations on America’s communal identity. I don’t know, the whole film is so tightly crafted that this slight splurge ultimately isn’t really worth complaining about. Thematically it’s quite compelling, and, to me, it makes Jackie’s rant at the end all the more riveting. Dominik pummels us with this material because Jackie is hit with it too. We don’t feel anything for him ever, but we do sort of feel his words during the film’s electric final minutes.
And yet of course Jackie doesn’t really understand America, only the criminal facet of it, which the film goes to great pains to present as brutal and cruel and unhappy. Jackie’s nihilism makes perfect sense in the criminal world, yet his viewpoint is undeniably limited. Dominik stresses during just about every single running minute of the film just how unkind and selfish everybody in it is. The film deserves applause simply for its refusal to compromise these characters’ vicious lives. The temptation in most films would be to show some humanity in someone like Jackie, not simply to show he has a heart but to make the film an easier watch. Killing Them Softly is blunt in its refusal to show these criminals as anything but hardened felons.
Dominik stresses this in two ways: through dialogue and through violence. The dialogue is persistent throughout, with nearly every scene being built around it. There is not one word uttered by anyone that would indicate they have empathy or feelings or care about anything but money and their own well being. Dominik wrote the script from a 1974 George Higgins novel, yet I imagine (partly because of the shift from the 1970s to 2008) that a good deal of the dialogue is his. It’s been said that he’s merely playing on Tarantino’s method of firecracker conversation, yet I’m inclined to disagree. Dominik sprays the screen with words with the incessancy of Tarantino, but without the style or pizazz. It’s darker, not as funny, and meant to impart a feeling of people who simply talk a lot rather than the random discourse people have behind the scenes that you’ll find in Tarantino.
Dominik’s use of violence is similar. Like Tarantino, it comes at intervals and with plenty of blood flow. Yet again, contrary to Tarantino, it’s hardly stylized. Markie gets attacked early on as two intruders enter his house. Dominik’s camera remains outside and tracks along the side of the place as Markie is beat up and then thrown out the back door. Call it a self-conscious exercise, but really Dominik is sticking to his theme of deconstructing the myth of glorified violence by viewing it from a careful distance.
Markie is later beat up after being blamed for the second robbery, and Dominik goes to great lengths to draw out the scene and make it as brutal and uncomfortable as possible. It’s excessive but effective in that it continues to draw as far as possible from this world, so that by the end it’s just about the most unappealing place that’s imaginable.
Yet there is one problem, which is when Markie is finally killed by Jackie while sitting in his car. Jackie pulls up and fires three or four shots, sending Markie to kingdom come, yet the way Dominik shoots the scene suggests a conflict of interests. It’s shot in ultra slow motion, as we see Jackie’s semi-automatic release the bullets and slowly travel through space, shatter the glass of Markie’s car, penetrate his body and flood the vehicle with blood. It’s one of the best uses of slow motion I’ve seen, but it sort of contradicts the hard realism that permeates the rest of the film. It does look like it comes right out of a Tarantino movie, and I honestly can’t figure out why Dominik would shoot the scene that way for any reason but to look cool. And it comes across as all the more jarring when Jackie makes his second kill and shoots his victim through the window of a car with a single shot from a long way off. The car blocks the body and we don't even see it hit the pavement.
But with the exception of that inconsistency, Killing Them Softly does a remarkable job of sticking to its agenda. It’s a beautifully made, terrifically acted, no-nonsense crime movie, exactly what I wanted to see Dominik make after such a wonderfully sprawling piece as Jesse James.