There’s an unwritten rule over modern gangster films – not exclusively indebted to, though perhaps heavily influenced by Tarantino and Scorsese – that dictates the necessity for its characters to indulge in lengthy anecdotes, personal philosophy lessons or extended nags about miniscule concerns. Entertaining though they often are, these great walls of speech typically serve as a build, a trajectory towards a sudden outburst of violence befitting of the lifestyle these men lead. The words are underlined by tension, with the expectancy of a bloody catharsis bubbling beneath the surface. In gangster films, nothing stays quiet for too long.
Nevertheless, these long-winded exchanges are there for a reason, to give insight into the characters, to flesh out their personality and present them to as a believable human being mere moments before they’re whisked away from us. The characters in ‘Killing Them Softly’ (dir. Andrew Dominik, USA, 2012) each have their own lives and backstories that lend them a depth in the fleeting time we spend with them, most notably in James Gandolfini’s miserable hitman and his marital problems back home. His failure to achieve anything of note in the film, especially with regards to the expectations the characters and audience alike place on him, says plenty about his purpose in the narrative.
Though not without depth, these characters are still ultimately avatars, ciphers for a grand subtext that swims underneath the film and splashes a little too close to the sides. These men we witness are chess pieces in a power struggle that stands as a metaphor for the economic climate of the USA. The constant preoccupation with contemporary anxieties is repeatedly enforced by the use of speeches from both Obama and George W Bush that have a habit of popping up almost every other scene, wreaking havoc on not just the frame but given loud precedence on the soundtrack, too.
The film can be enjoyed in spite of this as a solemn, nihilistic gangster flick, one bathed in darkness and without hope for salvation. Based on George V Higgins’ 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, the script already arrives as prime source material and is elevated even higher with all-round stellar cast performances, led by Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, an assassin left to pick up the pieces after a pair of hoodrats hold up a poker game and make off with money belonging to a few dozen dangerous men. The likes of Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini each bring their A-Game to material they’re clearly at great comfort with, and their inclusion on the cast list speaks volumes about the ambition of this piece and its place in the gangster canon.
The film’s director, Andrew Dominik, still has an eye for delectable compositions. The landscape is one of hopelessness, accentuated in wide shots of abandoned houses on dilapidated streets, where the barest movement comes from a rusty car tearing away from its pursuers. A cold, paranoid environment, grey and deceased yet stylish nonetheless. However, it is when the violence escalates into gruesome territory that the real aesthetic flair bursts forth: the graphic use of slow motion and incisive, gut-wrenching sound effects make the scenes of violence almost unbearable to both watch and listen to. The viewer can feel every punch, kick and shot to the head.
Then there are other stylistic touches, such as one particular scene when the two fingered hoodrats enjoy some downtime with the aid of Class A drugs. The alternation between blinding light and fading shadows that exemplifies the feeling of being high on the part of these men is a trick that drags out and seems tacked on. This much is evident when one compares this feature with Dominik’s previous film, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, and its consistent aesthetic; though heavily indebted to Malick through its poetic, lyrical imagery, it was nonetheless unique in its melancholy and artistic vision, these two things symbiotic to one another.
‘Jesse James’ was a revisionist Western that examined the cult of celebrity and its alienating effects, pertinent to contemporary America at the time, as all good Westerns are. The same subtle delicacy is clearly not afforded to ‘Killing Them Softly’, possibly because the Western genre is by its nature removed from present day settings, thus giving it a distance that allows for a more potent, critical approach.
This one does have everything going for it: a reliable veteran cast, a quick-fire script, superb cinematography. It is elevated by these merits, though its apparent self-importance as a piece of socio-political commentary leaves it to simply coast on them.