Let's get something straight - KILLING THEM SOFTLY doesn't give a fuck about you. Your wants and needs don't enter into it. Andrew Dominik's previous film, the masterpiece THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, is lush and elegiac; KILLING THEM SOFTLY in comparison is a kick in the balls to your worst enemy, on repeat. As JESSE JAMES was gorgeous and graceful, KILLING THEM SOFTLY looks like an open wound (in a good way). JESSE JAMES was long and deliberately paced; KILLING THEM SOFTLY is an unromantic in-and-out in a back roads hotel - brutal and to the point. This movie is as cynical as movies get.
At this point, it seems like Andrew Dominik can do anything - even though all of his films are ostensibly crime films, they are as different from each other as they could possibly be. The real treasure here is Dominik's script - KILLING THEM SOFTLY (based on the novel COGAN'S TRADE by George V. Higgins) has dialogue that is a joy to listen to, and very reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's gangsters in that most of these guys like to talk just to hear their own tough-guy schtick come out of their own mouths. The cinematography by Greig Fraser takes the audience to some odd places, but it fits the jagged nature of the movie. No one gets away clean, and the movie looks it - everything has a dull gray sheen, everything looks corrupted.
Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are as small-time as it gets, but they know better than to pass up an opportunity that Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) offers - if they boost a local card game headed up by Markie (Ray Liotta) and split the money three ways, no one will think to touch them. Markie's already robbed his own card game once, so the three figure he'll just get tapped again and they'll get away scott-free. But loose lips prevail, and the syndicate, represented by Richard Jenkins' Driver, brings in Jackie (Brad Pitt) to clear up any misunderstandings. Jackie brings in his own partner Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help, but Mickey's a wash - drunk and newly divorced, Mickey isn't much good to anyone, so Jackie's on his own to find out what happened and to enforce a little vengeance. All in a good day's pay, of course.
There's such a mean, cynical streak in KILLING THEM SOFTLY, and it makes the point (probably too much) that America isn't the land of hope and dreams that everyone wants it to be. It's all about the money, and about who gets theirs. The movie plays itself out during the final days of the 2008 Presidential election - amidst all the hope and change and economic downturn talk, Jackie does his business, and he does it with efficiency. All the rest is bullshit. We listen to the bluster of self-important men, but it all boils down to one thing - everyone gets paid, or everyone gets dead.
Some of the aesthetic choices of Dominik and Greig Fraser are terrific - one shooting, done in extreme slow motion, with shards of glass and viscera flying through the air, will satisfy any bloodthirsty audience members. It's damn beautiful. A conversation between two characters, as one fades in and out from a smack stupor, is shot in such a playful manner you almost ignore the rich dialogue being said. Even the opening credits underscore the meaning behind the movie - as we hear Barack Obama speak, there's a current of tension and starkness throughout the soundtrack, as brutal, bleak reality clashes head-on with optimistic hope and fancy.
Pitt is fantastic as Jackie - he's not even cynical in how he plays him. Jackie knows the score and has no illusions about his role in things, and the last lines of the movie are a kick straight to the gut for anyone thinking that somehow goodness and human kindness will prevail. He's so matter-of-fact about his disdain for these illusions that he's almost convincing - even to me, an eternal optimist about most things. The politics of the movie are certainly not subtle - no one even listens to music on the radio in this movie, and I never knew gangsters to be so invested in the election and financial crisis of 2008 - and at times Dominik overplays his hand in that regard, but that's a minor quibble. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is a fantastic crime movie, and I love its black, shriveled heart. This movie cuts deep.