After reading Beth Cunniffe’s excellent and gushing review of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, I thought in the interests of fairness I would present an alternate view on the film.
After reading many reviews along the same lines as Beth’s in which film critics could not wait to heap praise on the film, I went in with high expectations. I came away feeling decidedly let down by a film which I felt lacked originality and subtlety and, for a film that only clocks in at 97 minutes, dragged considerably. The film revolves around low-life gangsters Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russel (Ben Mendelsohn), who rob a protected poker game run by the decidedly untrustworthy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), and the man who is tasked with finding and ‘punishing’ them, mob enforcer Jackie (played by a practically sleep-walking Brad Pitt). This all takes place in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, as we’re constantly reminded by a plethora of Obama speeches that litter the film.
The central metaphor of the film, comparing the financial meltdown of 2008 to the dealings of gangsters and low-lifes, with the actions of Jackie representative of the folly of allowing the banks to self-regulate as they only acted in their own interests, is so ham-fisted and executed in such an obvious, in-your-face way that I found it increasingly irritating as the film went on. The constant use of Obama’s pre-election speeches promising change act as a not-so-subtle way to remind us all how Obama has in fact not changed the world over-night, and he did not save the world’s economy single-handed, despite him callously encouraging optimism after eight years of George W Bush. It feels like such an obvious and cheap shot to me. Also Jackie’s final monologue in which he speaks of the greed inherent in society may as well be grandly addressed straight to camera ala Charlie Chaplin in the final scene of The Great Dictator, such was the subtlety of it. It only acts to reinforce this film’s tortured metaphor and central message about greed, to the extent where it felt as if it was being forcefully rammed down my throat. Add to that that the depiction of the organised criminals in the film, metaphor or not, was so clichéd it was almost embarrassing. What was an original and reasonably promising premise has ended up producing an unoriginal and clichéd mess.
The film also feels quite flat and is incredibly uninteresting to look at. This was initially surprising, given that it is directed by the same man who directed the wonderfully shot visual treat that is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Roger Deakens’s cinematography in that film is staggeringly beautiful, it is a fantastic film to look at, and I was expected something similar from Killing Them Softly. Alas, director Andrew Dominik did not call upon Deakens for Killing and as a result the cinematography of Greig Fraser simply pales in comparison. The last film Dominik produced before Killing was the superb Assassination of Jesse James, a largely over-looked film and one of, if not the, best of 2007 in my opinion. This is one of things that made Killing so disappointing, as it does not come close to reaching the heights that Dominik’s previous work reached. The films are similar in a way, in that there is very little ‘action’ to speak of. In Jesse James huge swathes of the film are taken up with incredibly wide, sweeping shots of barren landscapes, of long, awkward and tense silences between the characters, which leaves room for the viewer to marvel at the scenery, or the fantastic way many of the scenes are shot and framed, all of which are greatly enhanced by the cinematography. In Killing the lack of action is made up for by dialogue-heavy scenes; the majority of the film involves the characters discussing murder and sex and drugs, and very rarely does the viewer actually see them do anything. The scenes are incredibly static as a result and at times it resembles a stage play. This of course would not be an issue if the dialogue was not so inane and uninteresting. For a film that is so reliant on dialogue to keep the viewer’s interest, it falls incredibly short in that sense. It lacks the comedy and relatable nature of the dialogue in movies such as Kevin Smith’s Clerks. or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, movies that heavily relied upon dialogue but worked so well because the dialogue was so sharply written and instantly quotable. The speech in Killing seems flat and boring in comparison, particularly the exchanges between Frankie and Russel which are so inane and moronic that I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat barely thirty seconds after the pair had begun one of their many painful exchanges, the worst of which involves low-life Russel describing his sordid affair with a woman whom he describes as ‘crazy’ and ‘like an alien’. This dialogue may achieve its aim of making the characters appear moronic and unpleasant, but it also makes the writer-director appear moronic for thinking that this dialogue was in any way amusing or engaging. This is the fundamental reason why this film is such a failure, because not only is it incredibly static and stagy, but without any interesting direction or attractive cinematography the film becomes wholly reliant on the exchanges between the characters to save it and keep it engaging. And the dialogue is, quite simply, awful.
The movie does have some redeeming features though; there are flashes of inspiration from Dominik dotted around which make the rest of the film even more frustrating as it is clear that he had it in him to make a much better film. The scene in which Markie Trattman is brutally beaten is incredibly visceral and unpleasant, as the combination of shaky camera-work and the focus on Ray Liotta’s face as it takes one pummelling after the next make this scene a deeply uncomfortable watch, but in an oddly entertaining way. It was one of the few moments in the film which forced an emotional response from me, with Liotta’s performance so uncompromisingly convincing that I almost believed he had been beaten. It is rare these days that a fight scene can generate genuine disgust from a viewer, but the way this scene is shot and performed presents how deeply unpleasant physical violence is, and along with that a world in which the dishing of out of it becomes an occupational requirement. Similarly the scene in which Russel is high on heroin attempts to present to the viewer the fuzzy nature of the mind of someone on the drug, again presented with great ingenuity and originality by Dominik. Why was the rest of the film not this creative or interesting? Also the performance from James Gandolfini as Mickey, a character who essentially gives the viewer an insight into what Tony Soprano did after The Sopranos finished, is another highlight of the film.
But essentially this was an uninspiring, largely unoriginal and incredibly ham-fisted movie that showed glimpses of ingenuity along the way but was generally a disappointment.