From The Roaring Twenties to Scarface and Goodfellas, gangster movies are often about the violent distortion of the American Dream. Our anti-hero strives for wealth—and the better life he believes it will bring—through ingenuity, elbow grease, and often blood, sweat and tears…though none of the latter may be his own. The American gangster is perhaps the best way to explore how the American Dream can be made an American Nightmare. Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly tries to go a step further, using the setting of a criminal underground to speak to the evils of capitalism and corporation-overrun America. Unfortunately, it's a gamble that just doesn't pay off.
Based on George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade, the film centers on a ill-conceived heist and the carnage it brings down on anyone even remotely connected to it. Though the film's trailers show a dark sense of humor, the movie's jokes lack comedic timing, making this feature either a failed comedy or a stale drama. While Brad Pitt may seem the star, his hitman character, the titular Jackie Cogan, doesn't appear until the film's second act. Until then, we're stuck with a greasy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) and a wiry, naïve thief (Scoot McNairy) fresh from prison and hungry for some easy money. The two decide to rob a local illegal gambling den, planning to peg it on the place's crooked owner (Ray Liotta in a thankless role). Following the heist, unseen management brings in Cogan, who—per the title—prefers to keep his distance from his prey, killing them softly. Basically, he likes to keep it professional, avoid emotions. In the mix there's also Richard Jenkins as an easily flustered middle man and James Gandolfini as a monologuing and maudlin killer. Unfortunately, this incredible cast makes little impact because the film lacks focus.
From the start, Dominik, who previously won acclaim for writing and directing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, makes confounding and dissonant choices. The film is a tangle of story threads unfurling crudely amid a misplaced dreamy soundtrack and speeches from Senator Barack Obama, Senator McCain and President George W. Bush, during the presidential campaign and financial crisis of 2008. Dominik attempts to make these repeated mentions of the economy sync up to his story of greedy and short-sighted crooks in some sort of meaningful way, but the message is incoherent beyond the obvious. Worse yet, the characters are so vile and selfish that there is nothing for us to connect to, and the proceedings carry no emotional weight or dramatic tension. Because really who cares what happens to men who say things like this, speaking of the women they've bedded: "These girls, you probably wouldn't want to rape them, but the plumbing's just fine."
This dialogue reflects the kind of brutality that's on display in Killing Them Softly. The violence in the film—much of it enacted against Liotta's poor scapegoat—is absolutely grotesque. An ardent fan of horror, I typically have a high tolerance for movie violence, but confess I turned away from the screen multiple times. It's not so much the gore, which was minor, but the bone-crunching sounds that crack loud and clear as punches, kicks and pistol whips are delivered. It actually made me queasy. And it might seem we're meant to be repulsed but the violence, but then there's a perplexing sequence of murder that plays out in dazzling slo-motion with beauty shots of bullet casings flying and blood gushing that seems to glorify the kill. And I'm left bewildered. Similar artistic flair—including a scene made thick and throbbing with effects to reflect the perspective of a stoned heroin junkie—are slapped in among the narrative, and are equally jarring.
My memories of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are vague but positive, and so I expected much more from Dominik's follow-up than this mess of allegory and violence. The ease and elegance I remember from his last film is absent here as scenes start, lumber then stop without purpose before clumsily cutting elsewhere with a song slapped on, adding to the aimless and episodic feel. There will be a lot of truly remarkable films coming out this season, but by my count Killing Me Softly is not among them.