Theo Zenou reviews the latest film by Andrew Dominik, now in theaters.
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten an angry film. Not a film with angry characters, but a raging picture, one that makes no compromises in denouncing the society it comes from. Well, despite its title, Killing Them Softly pulsates with disillusion and frustration, melancholy and indignation, loneliness and longing for community.
Brad Pitt reunites with his Jesse James director Andrew Dominik for a gangster film that works both as a detailed rendering of our contemporary society and an urging call for a more moderate capitalism. Killing Them Softly takes place in 2008, in the midst of the presidential election. The economic meltdown is hitting badly, people are jobless, and in those risky times, values tend to get forgotten for the appeal of the $. In come three small-time crooks who decide to rob an illegal poker joint. But–reflecting the state of their country’s industry–they are disorganized and under-prepared. Although they manage to get away with all the cash, their crime jeopardizes the financial balance of the local underworld. And there’s a consequence for messing things up like that. It comes in the form of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), one of the finest mob enforcers in the business. In short, he “cleans up.”
The filmmaking is top-notch; Greig Fraser’s cinematography might be the best use of contrast this year. Brad Pitt leads a fantastic ensemble that includes Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini alongside the now confirmed talent of Scott McNairy. Inexplicably, however, Killing Them Softly just scored a rare F CinemaScore. Therefore I find it important to let potential viewers know that this film is in no way the thrilling gangster drama that the trailer hints at, nor is this a particularly exhilarating journey into the underworld. Rather it is a minimalistic meditation on the state of the union, one that looks back at the past as much as it sketches the future. Indeed, 2008 and Obama’s election now seem like history, as the recent presidential election confirmed. Much can happen, and has, in four years. As a consequence, the film feels like a period movie. We are looking at another time, certain characters do not yet know the extent of what is about to happen. Without rendering Obama’s discourse obsolete, Dominik makes a startling and at times ironic denunciation of America’s political system. It all comes down to the single thought: “America’s not a country, it’s just a business.” Pace-wise, the film is rather slow but tense. Indeed, Dominik excels at what I like to call “the intimacy of epic filmmaking”, as his Jesse James so perfectly demonstrated us. And here he’s constructing an intimate urban epic within a 90-minute slot. Each character is isolated, and this is heightened by a mise-en-scene relying heavily on singles and shot-reverse shot. The film does not force anything upon the audience, but requires active viewership. The film is aimed to spark dialogue and debate, beginning in the space of the theater. As a consequence, if you’re looking for intelligent storytelling, politically charged cinema that does not preach, then Killing Them Softly is for you.