Set against the backdrop of the 2008 US election, chunks of both major parties’ campaign rhetoric, as well as that of former President Bush, permeate select scenes of Killing Them Softly via background radios and televisions, entering like tumbleweeds rolling across a set. The film’s jarringly edited opening credits even cut between the title cards and Scoot McNairy’s slow passing through windswept garbage in a decayed, unnamed suburbia, looking cold and in pain as a cigarette hangs from his mouth, as his walk is scored by the mangled audio mix of an Obama speech about the “American promise of life”: “to make of our own lives what we will.” Later music use also veers far from subtlety, with songs like “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” chosen for blatant irony, and a scene of substance abuse accompanied by the sounds of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Killing Them Softly’s furious avoidance of coyness might prove disastrous, though the bluntness, despite its aesthetically enthralling execution, is still likely to frustrate many. Look beyond the louder elements of the economic and political threading, though, and one has a crackling dialogue-heavy thriller that revels in palpable atmospherics and great performances.
McNairy’s ex-con Frankie is hired by small-time criminal Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob a high-stakes, illegal card game, with the assistance of his dishevelled, Australian junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The particular game is chosen because its host Markie (Ray Liotta) has dared to have his own game robbed before; though his fellow criminals found Markie’s stunt amusing after finding out months after the fact, suspicion will naturally fall upon him, with more serious consequences, should one of his games get held up again. The job goes surprisingly well for the three schemers, while the local criminal economy falls upon hard times following the raid and Markie’s assumed involvement. With usual enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard) out of commission due to ill health, a mob functionary (Richard Jenkins) hires hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to track down those actually responsible. Discovering the true perpetrators, Cogan suggests to the fixer that, beyond the three culprits, Markie must also be made an example of so as to restore confidence and get the game circuit back on track. Not wanting to take out Johnny Amato who he has some personal familiarity with, partially due to drawbacks regarding stealthy assassination, Cogan himself calls on fellow assassin ‘New York’ Mickey (James Gandolfini) to share the hits, though he proves to be a drunken liability.
Loosely based on George V. Higgins’s 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s effort may be set in 2008, but its vintage vehicles and Greig Fraser’s dark, melancholic camerawork amidst the American grime strongly recall mannerisms of 70s cinema’s most praised crime films. The film is structured around conversation sequences between two to three players, with action often implied through talk rather than detailed visual depictions: see how a portrait of Sam Shepard’s Dillon is formed entirely through remarks, the actor only appearing once in an early scene, or how one character’s exit from the narrative is mentioned in conversation rather than ever shown. There are action set-pieces, though, and there are highly stylised contrasts to the beautiful, lower-key rhythms of the dialogue scenes. There’s one memorable beating in the rain with painful, heightened sound effects to stress the brutality, while elsewhere a shooting is depicted in a symphonic, slow-motion sequence involving shattering glass, spurting blood, even more rain and incoming traffic to finish the victim off.
These two cited sequences, particularly the latter, are quite flamboyant, arguably at odds with the rest of the film’s tone. The stylistic flourish is not shallow directorial showiness, though, but in fact rather relevant to one of the film’s topics. The target of each of these scenes is someone who must be made an example of in a public fashion, as has been discussed by Pitt’s Cogan and Jenkins’ money man. Restoring the local community’s trust in the gambling operations involves a very loud statement of enforcement upon those who the majority assume responsible for the recent shake-up, and so the operatic, performance piece nature of these violent encounters actually proves logical. It certainly helps that the sound design and Fraser’s evocative cinematography are stellar, a trait recurrent throughout the film. Some of the hazier visual qualities of Dominik’s previous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford even make an appearance in the aforementioned heroin sequence, in which Russell’s disorientation is represented through various distortions of sensory perception and time.
Amidst its open-ended, multi-perspective exploration of stupidity, desperation and unhappiness, there’s also a sketching of toxic misogyny inherent in those who see a deterioration of their masculinity occurring, particularly potent given events of the most recent election cycle. There is only ever one woman on-screen in the film, a prostitute verbally abused by Gandolfini’s Mickey, a character who waxes lyrically in disgusting fashion about a past “piece of ass”. Mendehlson’s grungy Russell, meanwhile, is prone to using extravagant animal comparisons to describe partners and casually incorporating such assessments as, “You probably wouldn’t want to rape her, but all the plumbing works just right.” Despite his repellent demeanour, the filthy Russell is a strangely compelling screen presence thanks to Mendehlson, the character being one of the greatest receptacles for the film’s dark comedic streak; one single-shot sight gag he is part of, involving an exploding car, is worthy of a classic Chuck Jones cartoon.
The entire ensemble is on great form, with particular highlights being McNairy’s weaselly but sympathetically stupid Frankie, and Gandolfini in his memorable though brief role. Though the character has a suave, cool exterior, Pitt plays Cogan like a working man just trying to get ahead himself, frequently exasperated by both the upper and lower working of the situation. The film’s very final scene sees him collide head on with Jenkins’ mob proxy about the organisation’s corporate styles of operating, as the newly elected Obama speaks on television. It is another instance of the film’s cynicism and pessimism being forcefully used, but Pitt’s speech’s punch line, also the last line of the film before the cut to credits, is so bitingly funny, the effect is grin-inducement rather than weary.