You know we're all screwed when even the mob is pinching pennies. Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is not your typical gangster film, but that should be expected. It was five years ago that Dominik teamed up with Brad Pitt for the existential western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and while it had more than its share of problems style and vision were not amongst them. It was poetic, lyrical, and philosophical in ways Western films weren't designed to be but perhaps should have been. And now he's done the same thing with modern American mafia movies. We won't quite look at them the same way again.
Shockingly violent and deeply beautiful from the very first frame, the film sets out to be more than just a bunch of grim-faced mobsters gunning one another down in the streets. There's plenty of that, to be sure, but it also has something to say about the state of our country and how the economic downturn has emboldened desperate men. The corporate bail-out mentality has spread even into the criminal element, where the fat cats on top break all of the rules, brag about it, then leave the guys on the bottom to deal with the fallout. Loose lips sink more than just ships, they come with a bloody and darkly comic price to pay.
Cogan's Trade, Dominik's adaptation is set against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential election, and the lofty rhetoric and broken promises of Barack Obama, George Bush, and John McCain are a constant background presence throughout. Two degenerate lowlifes: the oily and disheveled drug addict Russell(Ben Mendelsohn) and petty thief Franky(a revelatory Scoot McNairy) are hired by Johnny "The Squirrel" to rob a high-stakes poker match run by the mob. He explains that it's a foolproof plot, because the mob will know immediately who did it, which sounds like a bad thing at first. The game is run by the fast-talking and popular Markie Trattman(Ray Liotta), and the guy is such a scumbag that he robbed his own game once before, then ran his mouth about it but never paid any consequences. So once the game gets hit again, Markie will be the obvious suspect. Brilliant, right? The crime itself is a genius combination of humor and unsteady tension, a powder keg that will either blow up violently or go up in a puff of a smoke. Franky and Russell are morons, surely and truly, and even the hardened thugs being robbed know it but just sort of accept it, albeit grudgingly. Somebody's going to have to pay for it this time. Doesn't really matter if it's the right guy or not, but somebody's going to pay.
Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around" signals the arrival of Jackie Cogan(Brad Pitt), a slick mob enforcer with his own personal philosophy on killing and a disdain for the way his business has turned. The economic climate has hurt everybody, and now he's left to deal with a middle-manager(Richard Jenkins) who squabbles over the price of contract hits and must run every decision up the chain-of-command. Deeply cynical, Jackie's sneering attitude matches the rather acidic tone of the entire film. He's not especially evil, in fact he loathes excessive violence and prefers to kill his targets "softly", so as to avoid all of those touchy-feely emotions that often get in the way. This outlook is what leads him to outsourcing the job of killing Markie to Mickey(James Gandolfini), a cash-strapped hitman who turns out to be a fat, lazy alcoholic.
The Sopranos did for TV dramas, in that it forces us to look at the genre from a totally different angle. Far too often, movies like this exist in a vacuum, where murder, money, and desperate men are trapped in this little bubble. The real world never really affects them unless the cops get involved. Well, there are no cops in this movie. This is just men who have been beaten down by the system yet must somehow find a way to persevere, and since they're all pretty terrible the ways they do that aren't going to be above board. Dominik's approach makes the violence all the more horrible when it actually does happen. Murder is quick and loud and messy, with the director adding his usual dreamlike artistic flourishes in one beautifully framed killing that is too good to spoil here. Those who took to Dominik's style in 'Jesse James' will be quite comfortable with how it's employed in a very different scenario.
The deliberately biting dialogue rattles off fast, and is full of wonderful character and comedic moments. A hilarious tracking shot of Markie getting roughed up in his trailer is helped by the presence of the great Sam Shepard and the scene-stealing rapper/actor Slaine(best remembered from Gone Baby Gone and The Town). Gandolfini is brilliant as the downtrodden Mickey, even if the character doesn't serve much of a purpose to the story other than as some sort of cautionary tale. Pitt and Gandolfini share one of the film's finest scenes, both tragic and strangely humorous, as Jackie has to basically threaten Mickey to stop wasting time on prostitutes and actually do his job. There's a ton of solid satire on display here, best reflected in the straight-up performances by Pitt and Jenkins. Everybody's so normal, casual, and not at all flamboyant. They could be your typical humps working in an office or something. One of the biggest problems that plagued 'Jesse James" was that Pitt didn't quite have the charisma to play an object of celebrity worship, but that issue no longer exists. His presence here is undeniable, excellent to the point of Oscar-worthy.
As talented as Dominik is, it's also clear that he needs someone to tighten the reins on him a little bit. He makes his point very early on that this was going to be a real-world allegory dealing with the financial crisis, and yet we're continuously beat over the head with it. Apparently what gangsters do all day is listen to political talk radio 24 hours a day, and when they hit a bar the first thing they want to do is turn on C-SPAN. Less would have been much more.
In some ways, Killing Them Softly bears a resemblance to another unconventional crime film from earlier this year, John Hillcoat's Lawless. It may not appeal to those looking for a traditional approach to the genre, but those open to something bigger and smarter will get all of that and more. While not perfect, Killing Them Softly is an angry, passionate film and one of the best of the year.