Satirically Dense Killing Doesnít Tread Softly
Jackie (Brad Pitt) doesnít want to be in town. Problem is Dillonís (Sam Shepard) sick, so when the syndicateís representative (Richard Jenkins) calls itís up to him to deal with the situation. Thing is said situation is an annoying mess, Markie Trattmanís (Ray Liotta) high stakes mob-sanctioned poker game getting hit for a second time leaving a bunch of nasty men with bigger guns extremely upset.
Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly © The Weinstein Company
Why annoying? The first time Markieís game was robbed he was the one behind it, Dillon giving him a good thrashing but the powers-that-be deciding to leave it at that certain heíd never try to pull such a scam in the future. So when itís hit again the heads of the syndicate arenít entirely certain what to do. Itís obvious Markie is being framed but at the same time whoís ever going to trust him again, and while itís important to find those responsible itís equally imperative to restore confidence in the game itself so money can be made once again.
Thatís where Jackie comes in. Heís the muscle, but heís also got a brain, and he knows what needs to be done to get the games operating again and the steps required to find the men behind this harebrained robbery. His solutions arenít going to pretty, and they wonít come cheap, but they will, in the end, make those with the money happy again which is, after all, the only thing that matters even if a great deal of blood needs to be spilled to make it so.
Based on the novel Coganís Trade by George V. Higgins, writer and director Andrew Dominikís Killing Them Softly, his follow up to the magnetic and ethereal The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, isnít the Quentin Tarantino meets Jules Dassin crime thriller the ads and trailers make it look like. Instead, this movie is a hard-boiled, fitfully violent satire of modern America, an evisceration of consumerist culture and the financial maelstrom colored against a backdrop of wicked men doing evil things all in a tireless crusade to get ahead any way they can.
Dominik introduces the trio of criminal masterminds (Vincent Curatola, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) behind the robbery in spirited vignettes, each scene featuring them revealing layers of inspiration and regret I found remarkable. There is pain here, real pathos, real disappointment. At the same time all of it is colored by dreams of youth and the promise of a better tomorrow easy to relate to, and while the decisions they make ultimately are not good ones in the context of the world theyíre all operating in they do make some sort of tragic sense.
Itís not just their dialogue, though, that cuts through the dark with acidic authenticity. The various conversations that Jackie has, with the syndicateís nameless representative, with a weary fellow assassin (played with raw, naked weariness by James Gandolfini), with other nefarious individuals as they come into his murderous circle, all of them speak a searing truth that is both hysterical and frightening. What he sees as America, what he believes to be its true state in the here and now, what he thinks of discourse and of communication, his observations cut right to the bone. They take no prisoners and they offer very little room for interpretation, and while itís impossible to agree with them all of course that doesnít mean they donít come from a place of truth thatís frighteningly real.
Not that Dominik forgets about suspense or doesnít believe little things like tension are not important. The stakes rise throughout the picture and death does come calling, oftentimes for those who do not deserve it but must meet their end if the status quo is to be preserved. Jackie is the Angel of Death, speaking words that can deceive and inspire, almost in equal measure, but are clothed in a dangerous bloodthirsty venom that takes no prisoners and offers no second chances.
Pitt is fantastic, his conversations with Jenkins and Gandolfini ripe with subtext dripping in multiple interpretations. Granted, he can play roles like this one in his sleep, always finding certain sort of joy in portraying the seedier, if smarter, elements of the criminal underbelly and from Snatch to Oceanís 11 to Inglourious Basterds to Fight Club Jackie is just the type of character the actor was born to play.
The rest of the cast is up to the challenge of equaling him, McNairy and Mendelsohn, all grit, grim and ethereal underhanded purpose, particularly so. They lap up Dominikís dialogue as if it were motherís milk, reveling in every syllable and going out of their way to make each moment uniquely its own. They rip at the underbelly of the piece with relish, each playing their respective part making sure the whole always moves with pulse-pounding finality to the only place it can come to.
The devastating element to all of this is that Dominik and company pull no punches and refuse to let the audience off the hook. We are Jackie, we are the minds behind the robbery, we are the ones who want to see the games back up and running as well as Markie, the sad, beleaguered soul who knows his single moment of idiocy so many years prior will probably lead to his death in the here and now. We are the consumers, the takers, the ones who talk a solid game about the greater good but in the end are only truly interested in getting ahead for ourselves. It reveals truths we donít want to consider let alone here, Jackieís final lines of dialogue shattering the eardrum and making the sort of statement that sticks with the viewer long after the curtain fades to black.
I imagine because of all of this Killing Them Softly will end up having a hard time finding a large audience. Satires as coal black as this one usually take time to resonate, develop a following, the truths they speak to hard for viewers to initially swallow as no one likes to think of themselves in the starkly staggering shades of grey depicted within. Even so, this is a movie that should stand the test of time as it speaks to the early days of this new millennium with a crystalline authenticity few films would even dare let alone attempt. Dominik has crafted something important, well worthy of celebration, and as darkly disturbing as much of it can be thatís nothing compared to the wreckage left behind when we leave our own moral code of ethics on the curbside in a dubious pursuit to come out on top.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: ÍÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)