No matter what else Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is as moviemaking, it gets an A for effort. If the film were an elementary school assignment, Dominik would get a row of gold stars and a smiley face at the top of his paper. The director has taken a pretty basic crime-drama premise and decided to push, pull, tug and drag it into the realm of greatness. At least that’s the idea, since we get a film dripping in style and propped up with a lofty message about the duplicitous, poisonous nature of the American Dream. With Killing Them Softly, Dominik’s made a film with something to say. The problem is, he says it too much, too obviously and too loudly, falling just short of running up and down the aisles of the theater and telling you himself.
The film’s foundation is pretty simple (though it often feels convoluted onscreen due to a lot of fussy storytelling techniques). Set in 2008 with the the presidential election and the financial crisis looming in the background, Killing Them Softly opens with a couple of dimwitted criminals — the fresh out of prison Frankie (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) — knocking over a card game. The idea is that they’ll put the guy (Ray Liotta) running the game under suspicion while they walk away scot-free, but it turns out not to be so simple as mob enforcer Jackie (Brad Pitt, at his most Brad Pitt) is called in to clean everything up.
Besides digressing to a subplot involving an alcoholic, sex-obsessed, crass hit man (James Gandolfini) — which serves little purpose besides padding the runtime — that’s pretty much the picture. Dominik gooses everything with the kind of aggressive style you would find (and have often found) in the films of Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle, while mixing it with some of early Scorsese’s grit, vulgarity and stylized violence. However, Killing Them Softly is less playful and energetic, and a much more cynical, angry film than any of those names have come close to making. That’s because Dominik’s bete noire is America and its cutthroat, selfish constitution. (The film is really a thesis on how our political and financial systems aren’t so different from a bunch of murderous thugs, criminals and drug abusers.) While I understand the point (and probably don’t disagree with it when you get right down to it), Dominik is playing to the back row and wants to makes sure everybody understands his oh-so-weighty message. In between all the seediness, we’re inundated with TV clips and radio snippets (this appears to be the main entertainment for hardened criminals) of President Bush and then-Senator Obama discussing the tough economic times and making speeches on the hardy nature of the American spirit.
It’s a real pity that Dominik needs to be this ham-fisted (even his music choices — like the notes of The Velvet Underground accompanying Russell shooting up — are grotesquely obvious and uninspired). Beyond that, he’s crafted a stylish, often striking film (which, for what it’s worth, is a marvel of sound design) with nary a bad performance. For this, Killing Them Softly isn’t without interest, but Dominik’s ultimately gotten his head stuck up his own ambition. By putting the onus on creating a great film before making a consistently entertaining — and restrained — one, Killing Them Softly becomes an exercise in frustration at what could have been. Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher