Killing Them Softly: Nothing Done Softly In This Messy Misfire

The downside of making a great film is the expectation that comes along with it that every subsequent film will be of similar quality. In 2007, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford was as great as its title was long. It was moody, expertly paced, full of gorgeous visuals, and contained some nifty social commentary. His follow-up, Killing Them Softly, is so cacophonous and tonally cluttered that it makes me wonder whether the last film wasn’t the declaration of an important new filmmaker but rather a perfectly executed fluke. It goes from nihilism to screwball in no time flat, from Mametian tough talk to overt political statement in no time flat, from moments of emotion to James Gandolfini making an anus joke in no time flat. The visual styles are equally scattered, replacing the professional Roger Deakins-shot look of the last film with a mish-mosh that never gels. By trying to do everything, nothing works.

We meet two nobodies, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are about to execute a foolproof robbery. You see, Markie (Ray Liotta) runs a high-stakes card game racket for some big shots, and once in the past dared to rob his own card game and got away with it. This time, if anybody robs it, Markie will be blamed! He’ll get whacked, and Frankie and Russell keep the money scot-free, right? Wrong. Somehow, word gets out to the big shots, who via a middleman (the always welcome presence of Richard Jenkins) comes to hire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an efficient and economic hitman. Jackie has to kill Markie, Frankie, and Russell, because, well, their existence on this earth means bad business for the big shots. And in the struggling economy of post-Katrina pre-Obama New Orleans, every penny counts. After this lengthy set-up to the introduction of Cogan, there’s really nothing else to do but wait for the inevitable. Greed is bad, and those who try to take shortcuts to steal money from those who work hard must pay the price.

There are some well-executed individual scenes here: the card game heist is tense and unpredictable, and any time we can watch Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins just sitting and talking is generally enjoyable on principle. However, the scenes never seem to blend together. The opening credits sequence is fairly avant garde and jarring, seeming to indicate something politicized and off the beaten path is to come, yet it’s followed by ninety minutes of very standard sleazy gangster fare. Some of the sleazy scenes appear to condemn the greed of this lifestyle… yet almost everyone is treated to a Tarantinoesque scene of driving or walking to a cool old song, and the characters’ depravity often has the rhythms of a slapstick comedy (one cutaway, to a car full of dogs barking and defecating, feels torn from an episode of Family Guy), so it’s hard to imagine Dominik fully loathes this behavior. Is it a political allegory or standard routine gangster film? Are we meant to be disgusted by their behavior, or are we meant to admire their boorish wit and find something cool within their seedy lifestyle? Even the violence is schizophrenic: one “hit” sequence is handheld, visceral, gritty, and painful to watch. The one immediately following is gorgeous, slow-motion, laden with special effects and scored to awesome music. The one following that is sudden, dispassionate, and heartbreaking. Not all death should be treated the same in film, and the desire to explore different genres and tones contains commendable ambition, but here, Dominik simply isn’t able to keep juggling all of the balls. The comedy flops, the drama is undercut, the messages are received with a shrug.

The actors do fine work, especially Scoot McNairy, who’s having a hell of a year, and Ray Liotta, who plays a softer character than we’re generally used to. However, it’s nearly impossible to keep the audience focused on your performance with these scattershot tonal shifts in the script. James Gandolfini plays a fat drunk hitman who goes from Falstaffian piggishness to Sartre in seconds, and I pitied him as he worked tirelessly to make this utterly pointless character work. His scenes are drawn out, primarily so Dominik can let him spout “hilarious” comments about the quality of hookers in the town and mope about how his wife is going to leave him. At one point, he’s talking about how everything in the world is shit, and follows it with, “… so anyways!” It doesn’t help that after the heist, there’s absolutely no sense of furthering the narrative or dramatic tension, as we know who’s going to die and when, so these scenes crawl by at a snail’s pace. A sequence in which Russell is high on heroin is stretched out to an insane degree, just so Dominik can use a Heroin Junkie POV camera effect roughly eight or nine times within one span of five minutes (ten? fifteen? it was hard to tell). Most annoyingly of all, the overt political commentary adds up to approximately nothing. The device itself doesn’t offend me: the sloppiness with which it was implemented does. Furthermore, why use it at all if Brad Pitt is merely going to stand up and pronounce the movie’s Big Statement in one angry monologue at film’s end? The movie already wasn’t subtle– by then it felt like beating a dead horse with another dead horse. And just like smashing two dead animals together, this film was nothing but a huge mess. This has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

~ by russellhainline on December 2, 2012.

3 Responses to “Killing Them Softly: Nothing Done Softly In This Messy Misfire”

  1. […] Killing Them Softly: Nothing Done Softly In This Messy Misfire […]

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