We like to imagine that we’ve cleared the orbit of the circle of life. That we’ve achieved a degree of self-awareness far greater than that of our savage forbears, and a good distance from the antiquated notion of hunters and prey. The reality is that we’ve created a new circle of life, one in which we are the sole patrons, and the money is the mission. This is the world according to Writer/Director Andrew Dominik‘s latest, Killing Them Softly, a film as well-made and intriguing as it is heavy-handed and bleak. Softly is a gritty crime allegory, allowing a hierarchy of gangsters to stand in for our nation’s government and its people, and as the film unfolds it expends loads of energy conveying this connection, asking blood and gore to serve as a proxy for dollars and cents.
Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are two small time crooks, brought in by the slightly less small time Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to holdup a poker game populated with New Orleans gangsters. The two escape with the cash, but the crime world’s board of directors takes notice and enlists the services of a hitman named Frankie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Cogan is pragmatic about his work, doing his best to avoid the “touchy, feely” side of murder. He prefers to, as he puts it, “kill them softly,” avoiding any interaction with his marks that could lead to the messy pathos of a man’s final moments.
In the two of his three films that I’ve watched (Softly and The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Andrew Dominik has revealed himself to be a ferociously intriguing director. His style choices show a broad range and a broader scope, while his writing indicates a mind very much in tune with modern themes. Conversely, Dominik is a director who doesn’t know how much is too much. His 2007 Jesse James film proved superfluously epic, and his latest ends up far too locked into its financial allegory. In nearly every scene of the film Dominik finds an opportunity to utilize TV news or talk radio as ambient noise, and in every case the subject is our country’s financial instability. (It should be noted, Softly takes place at the close of the Bush administration, when politics had little else to talk about.) You reach a point fairly early on in the film where the parallels have been drawn and recognized, yet Dominik’s eagerness to reveal his theme is relentless, and inevitably draws you out of the story. Perhaps this tendency towards thematic deluge is a failing of a greener director, but that doesn’t save it from being the film’s chief weakness.
Which is a shame, because Dominik’s central notion that money drives all and criminals can be as blue-collar as the rest of us is otherwise handled deftly. He weaves us in and out of New Orlean’s criminal underworld with a steady hand, allowing the corruption and violence to reveal themselves in stride, rather than building towards them. This diplomacy is his strongest choice, and keeps the film grounded in a reality that few gangster movies can match. It also results in a type of criminal–Cogan–that we haven’t seen before. Jackie Cogan is a meticulous executioner, and his hits make for the film’s most exhilarating moments. The film’s most stylish sequence finds Cogan in the back seat of a junker, his driver sidling up to the mark’s towncar. Dominik conveys the scene in painfully slow motion, lending as much weight to the singular moment as he can manage, and the result is not only harrowing, but brilliantly illustrates Cogan’s ability to maintain his all-important distance from the chaos.
Young directors that come into their craft with self-assured style are the ones that seem to end up with the strongest careers, and I have no trouble believing that Andrew Dominik will become a household name. His style is engaging and fresh, and he’s a truly talented writer, interested in grand themes and bold characters. Making this leap will require a more discriminating eye though, as a common theme in his films thus far is a devotion to ideas that don’t always belong. Dominik’s interest in style is most likely the culprit, with his films’ meandering moments built around visually dynamic but occasionally fragmentary ideas. Still Killing Them Softly can be called a success, even despite its desultory wandering. It’s a case of the good far outweighing the bad, and a film that tries too hard is always better than the alternative.