“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own.”
Making movies is a gamble. But casting a mega-star like Brad Pitt in your film is a bit like stacking the deck. His name alone almost guarantees a film’s success. As in gambling, there are no sure things in filmmaking. Case in point is Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. Upon its release, the Australian auteur’s third feature film was a bit of an enigma. It was overtly political, but it wasn’t a traditionally political film. It was a raging crime drama, but it wasn’t a gangster flick. It was funny as hell, but nobody was calling it a comedy. After a tepid reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Killing Them Softly found its way to American cinemas on November 30, 2012. It was quickly forgotten.
It’s tough to say exactly what led to Killing Them Softly‘s failure. The film’s unclassifiable nature certainly contributed. How do you sell a film that doesn’t easily fit into a genre? This central problem led to a wildly uneven ad campaign that buried the film in ambiguity. Then there’s the problem of the film’s title, which is – admittedly – a bit silly. While the title captures the undertones of the film’s story, the words hardly roll off the tongue. In the case of Killing Them Softly‘s Cannes screening, mixed reactions led to bad word of mouth that crippled the film’s potential. Which is a shame, because Killing Them Softly is tremendous film – but no, it’s not an easy film.
Much of Killing Them Softly‘s quality can be attributed to its incisive source material. Dominik based his screenplay on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade. At its core, Killing Them Softly remains faithful to Higgins’ simple tale of a hitman sent to handle a couple of young thugs who knocked over a card game. While moved by the gritty simplicity of the source material, Dominik had no intention of keeping his film so tidy. Thus, he transported Higgins’ characters to 2008 and framed his story in the confines of America’s economic collapse. The bitter, desperate climate of the country adds a dense layer of anger to the film. As Dominik’s tale unfolds, the economic collapse looks more like economic apocalypse.
True to that sentiment, the film’s opening moments feel more like a horror film than a biting, political gangster pic. The film begins with an ominous tone buzzing over a blank screen, then cuts to a man walking through a dark tunnel towards an exit lit by the sun. Applause erupt. The voice of Barack Obama emerges from the darkness. As he proclaims the now immortal words, “people of America, this moment is our chance to…”, the words are interrupted by blank screen and tone. As the film cuts in and out of the moment, the man emerges into the sunlight only to be bombarded by a blustery whirl of garbage – just as Obama utters the words, “to make of our own lives what we will.” He then strolls slowly down the street as election billboards for McCain and Obama tower over his shoulder. It’s a daring bit of editing and the intro is as jarring as it is effective. Even if it’s not very subtle, Dominik deftly sets the scene for a very specific time and place. And all before the opening credits have even finished.
But then, Killing Them Softly is not a film concerned with subtlety. For the entirety of Dominik’s film bad guys do bad things. But they do so with an ever-present commentary of hearty campaign promises and despicable Presidential addresses in the background. The strategy is particularly effective in the film’s seminal heist scene. Staged in near silence, the scene sees two low-level thugs hold up an underground card game with bright-yellow dish gloves and a shotgun comically sawed off to the trigger. Dominik tempers the humor and heightens the tension by leaving music out of the equation. Water dripping, a fan spinning, heavy breathing and threatening words set an eerie enough tone. A television in the background broadcasts then President George W. Bush detailing the bailout strategy set to rescue the same corrupt banking institutions that caused the collapse to begin with. In the hushed moments, angry men hand over sweaty wads of money and Dominik’s lowly criminals become the micro definition of a macro problem – a theory hammered home in the film’s boisterous finale.
If Dominik is a bit overzealous regarding Killing Them Softly‘s politics, he’s far more subtle with his characters. You’d never know it from the film’s trailer, but Killing Them Softly is a decidedly talky film. For 97 minutes Dominik’s script deflates the myth of the American Dream by undercutting its every promise. But Dominik’s screenplay pays equal deference to the low-level thugs that populate its world. It’s a piece of the dream that they’re grabbing at after all. To his credit, Dominik assembled a hell of a cast to bring these thugs to life. With the talents of Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shephard and the late James Gandolfini (all piss and vinegar in one of his final performances) on board, there’s nary a false moment or kind word throughout.
But the impressive supporting characters are all there to bolster Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, who casts a foreboding shadow over the film’s various machinations. Arriving in a waft of cigarette smoke and clad head to toe in black, Pitt plays Cogan with the cocky swagger of a man who believes every word of every song Johnny Cash ever wrote. It’s only fitting that he arrives to the sounds of Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around.’ Cogan is, after all, the instrument and orchestrator of vengeance. Suffused with a by-the-book sensibility, Cogan is tasked with restoring order to the underground. He can hardly afford to show emotion. Prowling the streets in broad daylight, Pitt keeps Cogan’s every thought and emotion buried just below his fearless surface. You never doubt that Cogan is the smartest guy in the room, even if it isn’t always true. His quiet nature would be endearing if he wasn’t kind of an asshole when he opens his mouth – and, you know, a cold-blooded killer. As an actor, Pitt has always excelled at projecting a cocky charm. With Killing Them Softly, Dominik prompts him to turn that charm into menace. It’s that subtle trick that makes the performance so entertaining and elevates it to one of the finest of his career.
Under Dominik’s assured hand, every performance blends seamlessly into the film’s overarching style. For much of the film, that style comes from simplicity. As characters wax poetic in shady bars and parked cars, Dominik stages his action in a series of near static shots. Utilizing a tricky sound design to alter the tone of a scene, the Director adds an unexpected weight to stodgy conversations of unspoken criminal codes and the essential characteristics of quality prostitutes. In spite of its talky nature, Killing Them Softly is less nuanced than the Director’s previous work. With the help of Director of Photography Greig Fraser, Dominik finds ample room for style throughout his film.
That style is most evident in a key scene where Ben Mendelsohn’s character, Russell, slips in and out of a heroin induced haze. Pulsing light and fuzzy images dot the screen while words and sounds twist into a trippy swirl of the surreal. It’s a moment made curious because it’s full of motion, though the two actors never move within the scene. Later, Dominik and Fraser go hog wild with a drive-by shooting miraculously executed in super-slow motion. With muzzles flashing and bullets flying, glass shatters and blood splatters. The moment teeters between devastatingly beautiful and exceedingly self-indulgent. But Dominik reigns the action before it becomes overwrought. In the end, you feel the destructive act like you were in the car yourself.
Style aside, Dominik’s film never betrays its heady origins. With biting political commentary melding with a sleazy, comical underworld, Killing Them Softly is less concerned with portraying an America in crisis as it is with discussing whether or not America even exists anymore. With the film’s venomous final monologue, the topic seems quite open for debate. It’s a debate worth having. Say what you will about Cogan and his criminal cronies, but at least they’re held accountable for their actions. With our current political climate of hedonistic hubris and bullying buffoonery, we might want to take note – except without the guns. And the violence. And the murder. And the prostitutes. And the drugs. And the swearing … well, I kinda like the swearing, but you catch my drift. Right?
With its stylized mix of gangster humanism and fierce political overtones, Killing Them Softly is an extraordinary film that remains as relevant today as it was back in 2012. It should not have been missed then, and should not be missed now. Luckily, its currently available to stream on Netflix. So go and stream it. Right now.