Killing Them Softly (18.)
Directed by Andrew Dominik.
Starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. 97 mins
Killing Them Softly is a mix of hammer blows and grace notes; like being cornered by a pub bore who makes his obvious points in exquisite bon mots. It’s a crime thriller about a bankrupt economy or an exploration of the bankruptcy of crime thrillers.
It slams onto the screen and its first quarter moves with the fluid certainty of a master. The poster promises heavyweight screen performers but they are withheld for the first twenty minutes as two lowlifes (McNairy and Mendelsohn, both excellent) are persuaded by gangster Johnny Amato (former Sopranos Vincent Curatola) to knock off a high stakes mob poker game.
These scenes have a dreadful, pit-of-your-stomach tension. But the moment it’s over and the heavies turn up – Pitt and Jenkins sharing a scene in a car – all that tension just fritters away. The film doesn’t just loosen its grip, it dusts you down and tries to make out like that bit unpleasantness never happened, like a bouncer who has just realised that he’s got the wrong guy.
Australian director Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James) is trying on everyone’s shoes but refusing to commit to a pair. Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and the Coen Brothers are all very much in the mix, while the tremendous vision-of-hell-on-earth opening credits sequence feels like a Gasper Noe inspiration. Each and every scene is beautifully rendered but they don’t mesh. There is an exaggerated slow motion car assassination that is anabsurdly balletic pleasure. Gandolfini is flown in from New York for a couple of long dialogue scenes with Pitt. Almost every scene is marvellous; the film as a whole - not quite..
I can’t believe this mishmash style is unintentional. The film is set in the run up to the 2008 presidential election and it never lets you forget it. Every TV screen and car radio has Obama or Bush talking about the financial crisis. Using news media to give a wider context to a smaller drama is a heavy handed device at the best of times but here it is employed so incessantly, so clumsily, so brutishly and to make such a tired and obvious point you assume it must be some kind of double bluff. But in its very last line Pitt blurts out the, already established, moral of the film that crime is the American way
Just as we are trying to reboot our economies with the same tired ideas that no longer have any relevance, Dominik is showing us that our old gangster movie tropes no longer apply either – but if they did, he could do them as well as anyone.