Movie Review: Killing Them Softly- Andrew Dominik’s Third Film is a Successful Neo-Noir While at the Same Time Becomes a Failed Political Metaphor

Killing_Them_Softly_338145aAustralian filmmaker Andrew Dominik came on the scene more than a decade ago with a little known film called Chopper that showcased his repeating themes of violence, egomania, and cynicism. These themes suited him well later on with his 2007 visual poem The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford where he combined authentic characterization with historical criticism. The ambition seen in Jesse James could have given us a hint that Dominik’s next film would attempt to be just as aesthetically captivating as it would be conceptually intriguing. However, ambition without a sense of grounding can inevitably see a project lose itself in its own murkiness and incoherency if not delivered correctly and that’s what happens in Dominik’s new film Killing Them Softly. Killing Them Softly is a film that has two deviating genres and story points that attempt to be connected but falls flat in the final outcome. As a neo-noir examining the complexities and interconnections of American underground crime the film is a success with its wide examples of characters and teleplay style dialogue exchanges. But as a cynical socio-political commentary attempting to comment on rabid individualism and corrupt business in relation to TARP and the 2008 election the film is laughably off point and fails to make a convincing connection even in logical coherency of argument. Dominik brings us another film that is reflective in its long dialogue sequences and visually experimental in its cinematic deviations but overall Killing Them Softly is an arduous experience that is about as conceptually subtle as Brad Pitt’s shotgun to the head. If you’re looking for an absolute immersion into the mindset of an American cynic told from the viewpoint of an Australian then Killing Them Softly is your ticket to cinematic depression.

Film as metaphor is a great tactic not often used these days and is definitely the overall creative choice of Dominik’s adaptation of George V. Higgins “Cogan’s Trade” for Killing Them Softly. Setting the stage for his updated criminal thriller the timeline is weeks before the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the passing of TARP by congress to not so subtly parallel Dominik’s selfish, individualistic characters with no sense of consequence with the bailing out of the banks. It’s an interesting choice to criticize only the individualism corruption and not the other side of the coin including collective corruption and coercion, but it’s a choice that is handled too bluntly to be convincingly motivating as it distracts from the neo-noir elements of the movie. The film centers around the robbery of a card game by two amateur criminals (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) and the complex response by the higher powers with their replacement hands on cleaner Jackie (Brad Pitt). All the real strength and entertaining qualities in the script are linked to the crime thriller elements, whether it’s the pre-planning conversations before the robbery or the post-robbery negotiations and clarifications of what needs to happen. This visually authentic capturing of the criminal world is reminiscent of another George V. Higgins adaptation that director Peter Yates did called The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Each drawn out scene really shows Dominik’s strength for creating characters that feel genuine in all of their gritty flaws and repugnant realities, much like in Friends of Eddie Coyle. Killing Them Softly, though at times quite languid, builds intimate scenes of criminal activity that are incredibly convincing even if the overall message of Dominik’s film is not. Choosing to be minimalist in the teleplay delivery while interspersing the film with inventive cinematic displays of modern filmmaking and darkly humorous moments is what makes Killing Them Softly well worth experiencing even if the final outcome is one of unconvincing metaphor.

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Since Dominik has only made three films in his career then his latest work directorially is more linked to his first film Chopper than it is to his second feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Jesse James can be described as reflective while Chopper can be described as a tour de force launch into violence and egomania. Killing Them Softly isn’t as viscerally brutal as Chopper but the way Dominik has chosen to interweave his scenes of teleplay dialogue with moments of detailed gritty violence definitely has him returning to his debut form. His handling of the intimate sequences between characters is used in two ways; the first being the revealing of character foibles and characteristics while the second use is to slowly build tension between those characters. Every scene that Brad Pitt has with exceptional acting rival James Gandolfini definitely has a clashing of personalities and the rising of tension between the two character’s mindsets. In between those well written dialogue exchanges Dominik unleashes a barrage of intriguingly stylish and violent segments that arguably gives the film an uneven flow but it certainly is refreshing to get a minor break from some of the more ponderous scenes. As a director and writer Dominik is still clearly evolving as either a director of style and as a writer of substance and while Killing Them Softly isn’t an achievement on either fronts, it still clearly shows a storyteller who is coming to terms with his strengths and weaknesses. Luckily he had a cast of known personalities and up and coming actors that acted as the glue to this potentially unstable reflective crime thriller.

Brad Pitt in his later years is certainly choosing more interesting roles not exactly tailor fit for his good looks or charm, which always gives the projects he picks a boost with his presence. Dominik worked with Pitt on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the two definitely inspired a soulful performance that they do indeed replicate in Killing Them Softly. Most of the film’s strength comes from Pitt’s subtle work of tone and careful pronunciation of particular words making his purely professional killer persona all the more unnerving once he is on the screen. But the tone isn’t always serious with the help of the chemistry between two definite newcomers for American viewers, Ben Mendelsohn and Scott McNairy. These two actors play the affable and amateur poker game robbers that initiate the chaos that unfolds from their poor actions and their back and forth throughout the first half of the film makes it entertaining amidst its slow pace. And of course familiar faces such as Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini all give great performances or at least convincing portrayals that really allow Dominik’s words and dialogue heavy scenes to shine. If these actors weren’t incredibly convincing on their end then Killing Them Softly might have gotten completely lost in its unnecessary cynical political metaphor.

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One must keep in mind that the film Killing Them Softly is really a blend of a well delivered neo-noir thriller and a poorly thought out political metaphor. When the film focuses on its repugnant characters that represent the criminal underworld it becomes engrossing in its authenticity. However, when the film distracts you with its abrasive political commentary it becomes lost in its obvious negativity and never fully convinces its audience with logical or emotional arguments. Andrew Dominik has proven before that he’s a talented storyteller, especially with his sophomore effort The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but while Killing Them Softly has many redeemable qualities in written dialogue, solid characterization, and the occasional cinematic visuals the film isn’t a fully enjoyable or coherent experience. Many will have their endurance tested with the stretched out dialogue exchanges while others will be turned off by the brutal and graphic nature of the violence. When you’re an up and coming filmmaker it’s supposed to be about ingratiating yourself with an audience but instead Andrew Dominik has chosen to alienate many with not only political choices but also stylistic choices as well.

Grade: B-

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