How often can you lie, cheat, maim and kill before you grow sick of heart?
Killing Them Softly proposes that the US is sick of heart. Chunks of Barack Obama’s soaring 2008 campaign rhetoric — we can make this century another American century, we are one nation, we are one people, we can steer ourselves out of crisis, and so on and so on — spatter the soundscape of director Andrew Dominik’s boldly stylised crime drama Killing Them Softly.
The film opens with a mangled audio mix that dips in and out of an Obama speech and intentionally jars the, rhythm of, his, speech and, cuts quick, short, bursts of, words and, images set, to, gritty footage of a man walking through decayed suburbia, and it’s instantly obvious that Dominik’s political POV questions the sanity of Obama’s rhetoric. Economic vicissitudes ebb and flow but sickness of heart persists. Nothing short of a moral revolution can arrest the downward spiral.
The screenplay, adapted by Dominik from George Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly, does more than use gangster drama as metaphor for the dangers of free enterprise in unregulated economies. The drama shows how character and moral purpose are corrupted by success on its terms because it cannot be denied that the thugs, hustlers and hitmen who populate this movie have been successful on their own terms. Turning a buck can be evil.
Brad Pitt, greased leather jacket smooth as hit man Jackie Cogan, provides a sort of bureaucracy-by-bullet, stitching together deals and balancing the books, keeping the cogwheels (“this is not a country, this is a business”) turning.
Two small time crims, played with feisty perfection by Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, the latter cementing his place in cinema as Australia’s go-to guy for wwwassssttteedddd druggy performances (after Animal Kingdom) rob a card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta).
Markie has done the dodge on this own card games before, which makes him the prime suspect. But things get hairy, plot lines entangled, and Cogan calls in an alcoholic over-the-hill big shot (James Gandolfini) to tie loose ends together.
Daring moments of visual aplomb pull off in spades. Killing Them Softly has possibly the best point-of-view heroin scene ever filmed (can you guess who stars in it?) and an astonishing bullet-through-glass-through-head shot that will have stalwarts like Martin Scorsese going “wow”.
Set during the tip of the GFC wave, in the thick of the 2008 campaign, clips of Obama’s speech come and go in the background like tumbleweeds rolling across the set of a cowboys and Indians western.
And that is precisely what Dominik’s third and most assured feature (following Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is: a western. Change the backdrops to dusty ranches and deserts, the costumes to vests and hats and dirty boots, the cars to horses, the bars to saloons and bam — this is the old frontier, where nothing has really changed in the US of A.
People are still in struggle town. The sheriff is still powerless. Men call the shots, dictate the terms. Arguments are punctuated by bullets. Lack of financial regulation and inflated belief in protecting personal property, gain, power and reputation contextualise a violent sexist society.
Killing Them Softly is the latest in a batch of American films this year that contemplate the GFC in fascinating ways: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, in which the ‘New Flesh’ extends to the identity of enterprise; Arbitrage, in which Richard Gere both personalises and impersonalises large scale financial fall-out; and John Hillcoat’s Lawless, in which prohibited industries and disdain for authorities rip the heart — and throat — out of the American Dream during its formative years.
In Killing Them Softly, a brilliant bloody film from one of the great emerging directors, there is talk of a faltering economy, of slow and desperate times. Dominik’s masterpiece presents this washed-out landscape as the central nervous system of the real America, where ultimate currency is blood, and the failures of the top filter down not just all the way to the bottom, but to the bits below, the scabby underbellies where law and regulation cannot extend.
If you kill people up close, they get emotional, says Jackie Cogan. Talk about their mother. Their families. They beg. Cry.
If you shoot from a distance they don’t see where the bullet is coming from or the person firing it. Perhaps they don’t comprehend the political and social context from which it comes. You kill them softly.
This is the new way of looking at pistols at dawn. The new great American shoot-out.