Andrew Dominik – Killing Them Softly
(Plan B)
Words: Rob DeStefano

Heroin hasn’t been this much of a hoot since Wet Hot American Summer! When Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn decompress after the film’s initial robbery, Mendelsohn drifts in and out of catatonia; we hear the appropriate Lou Reed song and we see a hallucinatory car jam-packed with farting dogs. I watched this scene in complete glee. There are several moments in Killing Them Softly that reach this level of satisfaction, moments of cinematic exuberance. But when it was time for the credits to take over, I left the theater feeling completely empty. Where did it go wrong? Or was I still too disoriented from seeing the trailer for Mama – why would you adopt those kids!? – to comprehend director Andrew Dominik’s master plan?

The setting is a crime induced Louisiana neighborhood where Frankie (McNairy, Argo) and Russell (Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom), two childish ex-cons, perform the bidding for the equally broke Johnny Amato aka “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola, The Sopranos). The grand scheme concocted by this batch of fools is to hold up a local card game organized by the comparably seedy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). When this outing disrupts the community’s crime equilibrium, Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in by Richard Jenkins, some kind of unnamed middle man, to clean up the mess – to kill all of the above mentioned clowns “softly,” as Jackie likes to do.

The robbery, which sets the whole story in motion, induces a ten minute perspiration and long enduring white-knuckles. This is largely the result of sequestering the two inept characters (McNairy and Mendelsohn) to a back-alley room filled with twenty seemingly dangerous men. The scene begins and ends with a steadicam shot that weaves around sharp bends and glides down narrow straightaways, following the criminals in and out of the scene; this technical piece pays some homage to the father of the slick crime world, Goodfellas, though Dominik proves a finesse for aesthetic that undercuts pretention. He directs this scene brilliantly, knowing exactly how to craft genuine tension, and there is no doubt that he brings out stellar performances from his entire cast. The most notable deliveries come later in the film in the form of Pitt’s quiet and perplexed reactions to Gandolfini (another hit man hired to assist Pitt), which are equally if not more effective than a loud character performance dangled as Oscar bait. The director deserves praise for these accomplishments, but it is the fundamentals beneath the veneer that are not as celebratory.

Is there a larger message at work here? Maybe we should examine the “subtleties.” The opening shot is of an enormous McCain vs. Obama poster ominously watching over McNairy as he navigates the wasteland of a suburb that epitomizes current state America. Dominik’s camera often dissociates from the performers to instead linger on a televised debate in the background. The characters argue over the implications that the economic collapse has on the price of a murder. It’s as much about politics as 80s satire Eating Raoul is about the sexual revolution. (That was a movie where they literally waved dildos in front of the lens.) It’s one thing to use the constructs of this low-class crime syndicate to deliver the message of governmental decay, but at least give the audience something to chew on. All of the technical skill and solid performances amount to little in the final act since there is no pathos or revelation. Killing Them Softly‘s tagline is “In America, you’re on your own” and its characters are appropriately covering their own asses here. The cynicism and tone is somewhat reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, but the latter worked with a full-bodied narrative and expressed its core in a poetic style. The poignancy and beauty of Tommy Lee Jones’s final monologue sent chills through my body. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Pitt’s last line left me expecting another thirty minutes to the film. Its function was to hammer home the one note conceit, evident in the opening shot and given no development or tact throughout.

***Spoiler Ahead***

In allowing this political parable to consume the medium, the plot mechanics become subordinate. Pitt explains to Jenkins that he likes to kill his victims from a distance (i.e. softly) to avoid having any emotions toward the pleading humans. Since Pitt knows one of his targets, he calls in Gandolfini to do the job. Time is spent developing Gandolfini as a whinny, drunken assassin, and we are therefore not surprised when his debaucherous attitude is on the verge of complicating the story. But instead of using this to build conflict, the screenplay settles for two lines of dialogue and off screen action to dispose of him faster than Bella Swan-Cullen can finish a fifty yard dash. Pitt’s character just decides to do the job, rendering Gandolfini’s screen time useless. Pitt, now by some divine intervention, has no problem with getting to know his victims. He even spends an entire afternoon and evening with one gathering information on another’s whereabouts. It is hard for us to believe this is necessary since Pitt is an expert killer hunting in a small town. While these details may be chalked up by some to further the allegory – Gandolfini as the weary result of a profession and Pitt’s ambivalence as political fluctuation – the story shouldn’t have been sacrificed.

The film could be reduced to a sleek poster sporting a blood splatter and the mantra “These Days, American Government’s Whack!” On our War Horse scale, I have to say that I liked this movie less than I did War Horse.

Also, check out IF’s October interview with actor Scoot McNairy.

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[…] I would have included Killing Them Softly, a film that didn’t sit well with a number of critics including IF’s Rob DeStefano. While Andrew Dominik’s stylistic choices for the film’s political subtext definitely felt a […]

Inflatable Ferret » IF’s 2013 Oscar Predictions added these pithy words on Feb 23 13 at 2:50 pm

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