Killing Them Softly
"Killing Them Softly," adapted from a novel from seminal crime author George V. Higgins, is about as pared down as gangster stories get. Some hoods rip off a mob-protected poker game, unforeseen mob forces call in a hitman to handle the problem, and he handles it. Don’t come to "Killing" for twists, turns, or large-scale gunfights. Come for the small details - the singular cadences, the sleazy turns-of-phrase, and the sense of cool that pervades throughout. And let it be said, with Ray Liotta as the gangster overseeing the poker game, James Gandolfini as a miserable hood drunkenly commiserating with a menagerie of hookers, and Brad Pitt as the mythical enforcer brought in to violently stabilize the criminal community, "Killing Them Softly" has no shortage of cool.
But I’m not telling you about the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant and the donkey. Just about every scene in "Softly" is interrupted by audio/visual inclusion of campaign speeches from 2008. Two violent hoods are waiting to jump an Italian mobster outside his house? Guess what, they’re listening to updates on Goldman Sachs while they wait. A bunch of violent men are playing a high-stakes poker game? C-Span is on the TV; George W. their focus. Stop in for a drink at the bar? Obama is giving his victory speech in every corner. Apparently no one watches sports in this universe.
You see, Australian auteur Andrew Dominik directs the film. He’s an incredible talent. His first film, "Chopper," was an unfiltered study of a bipolar sociopath, and earned comparisons to "Taxi Driver." His second, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," was an indescribable tone poem simultaneously studying the start of America’s celebrity obsession and the end of its days as a lawless land. But it was also a horrible bomb, a prolific money-loser, and it caused protracted battles between Dominik and his studio Warner Brothers - battles about how the length of the film (it ran 4 hours at a film festival, was cut down to 160 minutes for general release), would eventually impact its ability to make money.
And so here comes his third film, an unfiltered attack on how everyone in America is obsessed with money and nothing more; to the point where even gangland murders are nothing more than the subcontracted act of a "corporate mentality." Every sequence is rendered through the eyes of a man spiteful of our country, perhaps understandably, for our monetary obsessions. A mob poker game gets robbed, and it’s painted by Pitt’s corporate boss (Richard Jenkins) as a "total economic collapse." How to fix the problem? Much like the 2008 Wall Street crisis, the first step is to find a scapegoat (Ray Liotta, as the game’s overseer) and take him out right or wrong. "The public angle," Jenkins says, has to be satisfied.
See where he’s going with this? The scenes with Jenkins and Pitt would be more than enough to sell the subtext that his tiny tale of a robbery-gone-wrong can also serve as a retelling of a much larger tale about our country’s economic woes. Dominik is taking aim at the way politicians clean these things up with bailouts and scapegoats and promises; assuring you things like the housing crash or the oil spill will never happen again... they promise, no way. And all not for the greater good, but just for the extra dollar it would put in their pockets.
It’s a smart allegory; ruined by the fact that Dominik doesn’t trust you to pick up on it for yourself. The Jenkins and Pitt scenes, which reframe their payback-murders as the act of a business trying to reclaim the status quo (the term "restabilizing the economy" is actually used), set up the symbolism with economy. The Obama, McCain, and Bush speeches overlaid in each scene pound the idea into your chest with the heaviest of hands. He’s not content to let you reach the connections and form the opinions on your own. He wants to drive it into your skull with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The rest of the film - the gritty dialogue, the dime-store details, the minimalist edge - has the makings of a gangster classic. The Leone-esque reliance on close-ups even gives things a mythological undercurrent. But every time a TV turns on, every time the radio blares, that cool detachment is ruined. Dominik doesn’t trust you to even think about his film, so he thinks about it for you, and puts all his Big Political Ideas on the screen, when they should be under the surface. It’s a damn shame.