Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

There is nothing wrong with a film that emphasizes style over substance, so long as it recognizes that it is on thin ice: any pretentiousness or flagging interest, and the whole enterprise is liable to collapse. Such films work through entertainment and formal innovation, and if one has a political point, it had better be a damn good one. The unfortunately titled Killing Them Softly wastes no time skating into the middle of its own frozen lake and jumping up and down on an already-cracking surface. 

The editing of its title sequence slams back and forth arhythmically from shots of an urban wasteland with an Obama campaign speech audible in the background, to white title cards on black with a grating, noisy soundtrack. It is an exciting, original, and pointless opening. It explicitly calls attention to its political aspect, but is little more than an empty polemic. The remainder follows suit, and the result is a film too icy to be funny, and too thin to be thoughtful.

Killing Them Softly has the difficult task of following up director Andrew Dominic’s 2007 sophomore feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a “holy shit, where did that come from” masterpiece of enormous psychological complexity that put a totally unique directorial style on display. Working in the shadow of that film, Kiling Them Softly is a major disappointment on two levels: it is a bad movie, and it’s not even recognizable as being from the same man who made Jesse James, save for some woozy camera effects and Brad Pitt as a sarcastic and functional murderer. Now we must hope that the latter opus wasn’t a solitary bolt of lightning in Dominic’s career.

The story is boilerplate fare: two thugs, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to hold up an underworld card game, hoping to frame Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the man who runs it. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is hired to figure out whodunnit, and the guilty parties are systematically found out.

On paper, the plot is simple. On-screen, it’s confounding. That doubtlessly has much to do with the proper plot being a little too simple, even to fill Killing Them Softly’s 90-minute runtime.  Detours must be taken; details must be shown. To do this, the film pads things out with pointless subplots and scenes, like the long dialogues between Cogan and his mob contact (Richard Jenkins). Cogan all but begs for permission to take logical steps and get the necessary funding to catch and kill his prey, but the contact always requires permission and a vote from the democratically run crime board. These scenes were clearly intended as a piercing satire of capitalist and democratic bureaucracy, but because they lack wit and tension, they instead function as narrative bureaucracy. 

In another subplot Cogan hires a hitman from out of town (a truly wasted James Gandolfini); he merely gets hammered, screws prostitutes, and goes on long, dull, murmuring diatribes of depression until Cogan deems him unfit for duty and elects to just do the dirty work himself. All these scenes meander around the plot, rarely increasing tension or resonating with the whole. They’re a tension-annihilating sideshow, and if they were more than filler in the source novel (George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade), something was lost along in adaptation.

There is one scene that is just devastating. Ray Liotta, who ripped off his own card game years ago but did not do it this time, is grabbed by two enforcers, interrogated, and then savagely beaten. The sharp thuds of the sound design, the sympathetic performance of Ray Liotta, and the close-up, high contrast cinematography by Greig Frasier (whose strong work throughout more than acquits him) make the scene a brutal experience and a harrowing anti-crime, anti-violence statement.

But by and large, it’s pondering and dull and makes broad gestures towards politics rather than meaningful statements. Andrew Dominic has likened the film’s broad-as-a-barn approach to political cartoons. There are two problems with this defense, the first of which is that political cartoons usually suck. More importantly, Andrew Dominic is not a cartoonist. His film does not look or sound like a cartoon. His actors don’t act like cartoons. His violence is stark and sad. I don’t know what impulse convinced Dominic he’s cut out to direct cartoons, but it clearly isn’t where his talent lies, and he needs to recognize that if he’s going to bottle the lightning bolt of Jesse James.


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