Nowhere in the overwhelming political commentary that plays through every scene in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly do we hear the words “choice” or “mistake.” Two constructs that have become favorites for politicians, the notion of freedom to choose and fail is left instead to the gangsters at the film’s center. Killing Them Softly plays its cards so close to the surface that it dares American audiences – accustomed to being intellectually ahead of narratives – to dismiss it as shallow. The challenge of the film is to read the surface effects and choose to dig deeper. The first obstacle of this picture is that the seemingly oppressed characters are not sentimental but instead reflections of the oppressors. The fact that “choice” and “mistake” are common rhetoric amongst these criminals speaks to the film’s opinion that America is defined by the damaged humans that make up the masses; not their leaders.
After two low-level criminals are convinced to knock off a card game for $100,000, a leather-jacketed hitman named Jackie is deployed to out them. On his way to killing each person involved with the robbery, and one whose mistake from the past winds up costing him now, Jackie meets with a corporatized higher-up who gives orders based only on the money he can provide. Cold and mildly emotional (though not enough to make it get in the way of the bottom line), Jackie does any kind of manipulation necessary to finish the job. For him, this is America, which means it’s only business.
Not unlike Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, Killing Them Softly is built in a way the begs to be probed for metaphors. Yet, the subtext is so surface that stopping there reduces the effect. What makes Killing Them Softly tick is how its metaphors are actually its point. Just as we endured months of speeches using vague terms like “Wall Street” and “Main Street,” Killing Them Softly’s presentation uses classic gangster tropes and news broadcasts that inform and reflect the narrative. We’ve become, Dominick explicitly states, a nation so far embedded in miles of bullshit that “real” can be found only in even more falsity.
Save the recent “Chanel #5” nonsense, Brad Pitt has established himself as a unique leading man not only willing to dabble in smaller projects but comfortable doing only that. His smarmy vulnerability leaks from thick wafts of cigarette smoke and masculine gulps of alcohol. If a metaphor was to be extracted from Pitt’s Jackie, he represents America in and of himself. He’s the beer drinking, boot wearing, pomade waxed, handsome face at the frontlines of anti-hero cool and business-like murder. However, his final line, “America’s about business,” isn’t a plea to a nation subsumed by excess so much as a declaration of the foundations that we have been built upon. In some respects, the sooner we realize that between Thomas Jefferson’s emotional “All men are created equal” and the assurances from leaders today, everything has simply been drapery atop classic business transactions, the sooner we may actually live civilly.
Killing Them Softly is visually arresting and even the violence speaks directly to gimmickry. In drawn out moments of killing, Dominick intends to satirize what we’ve come to applaud in over-sexed movie murder. The slow motion projectile of a bullet leaving a gun and the shell bouncing from the handle, makes us again read the surface effects as “cool.” If this was a Tarantino movie, the audience would stop there and give it a standing ovation. Again, more dressing is what’s behind the dressing. Similarly, a long drug use scene at the film’s middle employs classic Danny Boyle effects to make the audience feel as disjointed as the user. This, like the rhetoric, plays on our expectations of a “type,” so as to hide what the real effects might be. Whereas Boyle stops at the exploitation of the effect, Dominick wants us to look closer and actually question what we see or how we see it.
Killing Them Softly joins The Master and Cosmopolis as recent indictments of America’s capitalism. Each film deploys similar shallow stories that can only be picked apart when committing to getting past what may seem like obvious metaphors. Despite charges of cynicism, Killing Them Softly strikes me as an honest portrait of a society waxed into pomposity and fallacies. It’s courageous for being serious and not ducking behind jokes (see: In The Loop), maudlin (see: Lincoln), or bells and whistles (see: Tarantino). If audiences don’t seem prepared for a stiff mirror on society then a blanket dismissal for this compelling work may be in order. [A-]