Andrew Dominik, whose melancholic epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is surely one of the great Westerns, has followed up with a film that, while smaller than its predecessor, is still, at moments and for entirely different reasons, extraordinary.
Jesse James dealt with the closing of the frontier in the late nineteenth century, and the rise of tabloid and celebrity culture through which America was framing its myths of nationhood. Now, in his brutal, minimalist thriller Killing Them Softly (in national release 11 October), Dominik has taken the source material – a largely forgotten 1974 Boston crime novel about the fallout from a card-game heist – and somehow transformed it into a scathing morality tale of late-capitalist wretchedness. Although in both films Dominik masterfully deconstructs the American darkness through studies of ageing men whose rage has been diluted into the more insidious poison of despair, we’re a long way from Jesse James. In Killing Them Softly no myths are being created and no one’s a proto-celebrity, as was Brad Pitt’s Jesse James; there’s no more public and private. For the men – and they are all men – of Dominik’s dystopian underworld, there is merely under the radar. It’s the place you want to be, in the scramble to survive another day.
Killing Them Softly is almost preposterously simple. It also breaks every supposed rule of Hollywood script structure you can think of. The plot is light as a feather. (Two men rob a card game at another man’s behest; a hit man is brought in to take appropriate action.) There’s no traditional build-up of suspense: we know that trouble is brewing, and we await only the nihilistic unfolding of its details. No character reaches any form of self-realisation or heroic resolution. Other than the robbery itself – a marvel of tension that somehow calls to mind the great silent jewel robbery in Jules Dassin’s 1955 Rififi – and a couple of moments of bone-jarring violence, the film comprises essentially 20 or so scenes of men talking, almost always in pairs, often for long stretches. There’s dialogue in cars, dialogue in bars, dialogue in hotel rooms, and back to bars and cars again. The men talk almost exclusively of things that are happening off-screen, or that have happened, or that now inevitably must happen. Pure exposition, in other words: the cardinal screenwriting sin.
In the hands of Dominik (who famously fought with Pitt and the studio over the final shape of Jesse James; only later did Pitt realise it was one of the best things he’d ever done), all this is dazzling, and delicious. Perhaps, if you look closely, there’s something in the construction a little threadbare, a little hurried and slapdash: the extended sequences strung together, the endless talk. Yet Killing Them Softly continually breaks through its surface appearance, to become something far more interesting.
Dominik has transported Cogan’s Trade, George V Higgins’ novel, from its early-’70s Boston milieu to a blighted post-Katrina New Orleans, where it looks like nothing’s been rebuilt since the disaster of the hurricane. It’s 2008 now, the lead-up to that year’s presidential elections, and the film is littered with John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s and even George W Bush’s incessant sound grabs on radios and televisions; the impending battle between Obama and McCain becomes a white-noise background narrative.
The message of ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ is played out against this trash-strewn wasteland. Dominik couldn’t be clearer about his mission here. Killing Them Softly is to continue what he started with Jesse James: a polemic with the self-mythologising self-regard of American culture. In the opening scene we hear Obama in stump-speech mode speaking of “that promise that’s always set this country apart, […] a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will.” In the ensuing 90 minutes we won’t see much evidence of “will” playing a role in the characters’ lives at all – though they are certainly, to a man, living in constant and precarious relation to cause and effect. In Dominik’s vision – America seen through the prism of its free-falling economy in late 2008 – what sets the country “apart” is not exactly what Obama had in mind. All that’s in evidence here is men, largely weary, largely unsophisticated, succeeding or failing at getting what they want, with brute force and malice aforethought. There’s barely a wile or guile in sight.
It’s a balancing act, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste: a black comedy dressed up as postdiluvian gangster-noir in existential crisis, with lashings of metaphor. But stick around for the final speech, which is magnificent, and pulls the entire film together in a genuinely satisfying ‘Gotcha!’ moment. The scene in question doesn’t exist in the novel; Dominik created it. All three of his feature films to date (Chopper was the first) have been adaptations of books; if the final scene of Killing Them Softly is anything to go by, there’s no knowing what he might create if one day he decides to start from scratch.
Another aspect that lifts the film from what it might have been is the sheer quality of the actors Dominik has gathered. Ben Mendelsohn, having the time of his life in a string of roles since his deeply disturbing turn in David Michôd’s remarkable Animal Kingdom, plays Russell, a hopeless Australian junkie who’s the most overtly funny thing in a film that is not without its morbid humours. (It’s never explained what poor Russell is doing living in New Orleans, nor does it seem to matter.) Richard Jenkins is the corporate face of killing, the nervous link between the faceless men who ultimately control the card games, and the hired help.
The hired help, the fix-it men, come in two shapes here. Brad Pitt – clearly the actor and director have kissed and made up after the Jesse James spat – is icily brilliant as an assassin, the one character in the film who actually seems to know what he’s doing, and who alone displays a touch of compassion, mercenary and perfunctory though it is. (Pitt supplies 100% of the film’s quiet, polite, sociopathic menace.) James Gandolfini is yin to Pitt’s yang: an assassin gone to seed, whose alcoholism now overrides whatever skill he may have once had. Playing against type, Gandolfini delivers a beautifully nuanced portrait of misogynist, misanthropic bewilderment just out of reach of its own self-awareness.
The two men’s scenes together bring to mind Harold Pinter’s beautiful short play The Dumb Waiter, in which two hit men similarly struggle with mid-career ennui. Other than the brief on-screen appearance of a prostitute, women exist in the film only via hearsay in the rambling conversations, as objects of sexual gratification. Never has the absent mother been so absent; it’s a de-feminising that feels entirely intentional.
Only Ray Liotta, as the man whose game gets robbed, and Scoot McNairy, as Mendelsohn’s partner in the robbery, seem at times a little off-kilter among all this fine company – underbaked for a moment here, out of their bodies for a moment there. McNairy seems to deliver his lines as if he’s parodying gangster-talk in a 1930s screwball comedy, and the effect took me out of the story on a couple of occasions – as did Liotta’s evident dalliances with plastic surgery. But I was too swept along by the film’s dark and mischievous momentum to stop and care too much.
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