In America you’re on your own. One of the most criminally overlooked movies of 2012 was Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rough-and-tumble tale of petty holdup artists, mob enforcers and the suit-and-ties that control them (or think they control them). Dominik’s follow-up to his excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains some of the same cast and makes a few substitutions, and Killing Them Softly is a very different movie from Dominik’s earlier film and from most American crime dramas on the whole.
When two smalltime down-and-outers (played with hilarious gusto by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a mob-protected card game (run by Ray Liotta’s Markie), the local criminal economy crumbles into chaos. It’s not so much that the robbery is botched as the criminals themselves are botched, making it a fairly simple procedure for Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to arrive in town and put the pieces together. His systematic deconstruction of the situation provides the rest of the drive for Killing Them Softly, but Domnik and Co. enhance the subtleties of every punch and gunshot along the way.
An interesting feature of Killing Them Softly is the way the 2008 presidential election campaign – focused largely on the recession and the floundering economy – plays into the story. Unlike a lot of modern crime dramas, this one is very “bottom-up” – the players we watch are the lowest rungs on the ladder, broke and struggling men desperate to make any kind of score. This isn’t American Gangster or Goodfellas. The highest we go up the totem pole is a glorified messenger played by Richard Jenkins (who is fittingly out-of-place among the rest of the cast), and other than that it’s junkies, drunken hitmen, and enforcers who don’t think twice about shooting a guy. Even Dillon, a world-famous-all-over-New-England enforcer mentioned time and again by nearly every character, appears only once (and happens to be played by Sam Shepard). Addresses from Obama and McCain reach this subfloor of humanity nonetheless, but the blanket statements made by presidential candidates don’t exactly apply way down here.
And so it’s also fitting that the norms of “top-down” gangster flicks are also subverted. The first characters we are introduced to are really the only ones we might feel attachment to, especially Scoot McNairy’s lovable Frankie. Brad Pitt, the ostensible “star”, doesn’t pop up for a while – and when he does he’s not in his usual Brad Pitt Pants. To call Jackie Cogan ruthless doesn’t begin to do it justice, and when he shoots Frankie in the head neither he nor the camera flinch a millimeter. This is just the way the business works, as Jackie explains beautifully in the closing moments of the film (below), and it doesn’t matter if Frankie was lovable. “Everyone’s a nice guy,” Jackie says, but the cost of doing business just doesn’t take that into account. If this were Goodfellas or a movie like it, we’d be treated to all of the drama expected with the departure of a loved character – Joe Pesci’s Tommy first gets a scene of joy at the prospect of being a made man, then realizes his mistake, then gets a flashy death scene, then is mourned by his friends. Nothing against Goodfellas, mind you – Killing Them Softly is just something different. Frankie just gets shot and that’s it. That’s this world.
The care that Andrew Dominik and his team take to maintain this vision is astounding at times. You have never seen a beating like the one Ray Liotta’s character takes near the beginning of the film – every punch and drop of rain is felt, and Domink’s camera meshes beautifully with the sound design (the NY Times ran a phenomenal web piece on this particular scene, which I highly recommend). A drug-addled conversation between the two heisters could have been a simple back-and-forth, but Dominik enters the ever-cloudier mindset of the two characters and makes it more and more difficult to get to the point. Though he’s only directed a few films, Dominik seems to have a knack for pulling great performances out of actors who usually play the same character. The late great James Gandolfini is still himself here, but he’s refreshingly not Tony Soprano.
Killing Them Softly is a breath of fresh air in a somewhat tired genre, and I can’t wait to see what Dominik does next (an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain was in the works for a while there, which would be amazing.) I can’t cap this review with anything better than Jackie’s monologue to cap the film, so I’ll leave it at that: