On the outside, the films of director Andrew Dominik come with the promise of violent entertainment for an adult audience. Even their names are sanguinary. There was, first, Chopper, which featured an attempted assassination in prison, a self-inflicted ear mutilation, and shootings too numerous to count. Then came The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, surely the Western with the most explicative title since Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
The title of Dominik’s third film, in comparison, is positively Disneyesque: Killing Them Softly. A viewer who strolls into the theatre seeking visceral thrills could be tempted to walk into these films — unless he is familiar with Dominik, in whose case what you see is certainly not what you get. His interests lie not in the staging of frisson-inducing action, but in the dissection of the brooding male psyche. And boy, do the males in Killing Them Softly brood.
The film gets going with a plan to stage a heist and make away with money from a poker game run under the aegis of the mob. The men assembled in this discussion are three in number — John “The Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), who hatches the plan, and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), the lowlifes who will pull stocking masks over their heads to carry it out — but thereon, Dominik groups his brooding males in twos.
First, Frankie and Russell wait it out in a car and chew the fat. Then, after the heist, we move to a different car, and a different duo chewing the fat: a mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) and an enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is hired to track down the perpetrators of the heist. What Cogan will do with them is clear the instant we hear Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who oversees the poker game, warn Russell: “You know they’re going to kill you.” But that moment is still far away.
In the meantime, we gather around another twosome, entrusted with the task of finding out if Trattman did the job himself. Then we move back to Frankie and Russell, as the latter, in a drug haze, narrates a very funny story about his misadventures while dognapping pricey pets to Florida. (The number of men populating this flashback? Two.) More dual groupings occur: Cogan and Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hired hitman; Cogan and Frankie; Squirrel and Frankie. Even at the end, in a morgue, the corpses laid out side by side total up to two. All this is no doubt fascinating as a formal exercise. (You could, as I did, keep yourself busy just by waiting for the stray scenes with an odd number of people.)
But it all doesn’t really come together. When Tarantino writes these male-bonding riffs or as Scorsese stages them, they explode with junkie-eyed derangement, leaping off the screen and landing on our quivering laps. But Dominik, a less flashy and more existentially inclined filmmaker, seeks to arrest our attention through endless conversations about work and women. Tedium sets in after a while.
Killing Them Softly is afflicted with the malaise that prevails over a lot of what passes for post-modernism. The things you take away from the material in order to deconstruct it are often the things without which the work cannot exist. What’s left, in this case, without the pulse-quickening suspense of when, where, how and whether Frankie and Russell will get caught? A character study — but that succeeds only if the characters are compelling enough to be studied. With a running time of barely over one-and-a-half hours, no one really registers, though there is a lot of juicy acting on display.
And the subtext of the bleakness of American economy (the film is set towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with Obama waiting in the wings), where recession has hit even crime, is laughably overdone — it all seems like one endless prelude to Pitt’s big speech in the end, about America being a business. But connoisseurs of big-screen movie violence will want to check out a murder depicted in slow motion. A cocked gun. A trigger pulled. A bullet released past drops of rain. Shards of broken glass. Bits of brain. It’s bloodshed as a ballad. Somewhere, Peckinpah must be smiling.