With his sensational debut, 2004’s Chopper and his Western, 2007’s masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik is carving himself a career which fixates upon outlaws and violence. His films are predominantly preoccupied with the homosocial sphere, the embattled male and masculinity. So, would his third film, and second collaboration with Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly, be a departure or would these themes continue? I visited Dartington’s Barn Cinema, to find out…
America, 2008. It’s election year and the fight is on between Bush and Obama. There’s massive unemployment, the economy is down the toilet and even the world of gangsters and geezers, isn’t impenetrable to the financial meltdown. New Orleans; three low level crims, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), Russell (Ben Mendelson) and Johnny (Vincent Curatola), devise a heist, they decide to knock over a protected poker game.
They pick this game because the guy running it, Markie (Ray Liotta), robbed his own game several years ago. The idea being, the bosses will figure Markie has robbed his game again and he’ll get ‘whacked’, leaving our intrepid trio of losers to spend their loot in peace.
However, the ‘committee’, who are represented by the ‘handler’, played by the excellent Richard Jenkins, decide to bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hitman, and it’s his job to investigate the robbery and catch the thugs behind the heist. Think of him as a PR agent, but one who does his best work with a gun, instead of a Mac.
As with Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James, Killing Them Softly isn’t interested in the female plight. This is a film about men, and their anguished, violent and often vile behaviour. The only female characters onscreen (or off) are either prostitutes or nagging wives. Whether figuratively or literally, the women featured in Killing Them Softly are screwed.
The most feminine character in the film is played by Richard Jenkins, the ‘handler’ for the committee, a sort of corporate manager. It’s not hard to see him managing a Starbucks, instead of managing the indecisive crims, who run the crime in New Orleans. With Jenkins aside, the film is steeped in machismo lore, from Gandolfini’s bloated hitman, the drunk Mickey, who’s too busy drinking or chasing prostitutes to do his job, to Pitt’s cocksure Cogan.
Which brings me to my main problem with Dominik’s third film, Pitt. To me it seems that Pitt is concentrating too hard on impersonating Tyler Durden. Cogan is a rockstar hitman, but that feels like a misstep, Pitt is almost too cool for the role he’s playing, which created a sense of disbelief and broke my immersion. I actually think the role would have been far better suited to a different actor, someone without Pitt’s star iconography. Cogan shouldn’t be so cool or so flamboyant -this isn’t a Leonard Elmore film.
The acting from this (practically) all male cast deserves your attention. It’s been ages since Gandolfini delivered a performance this engrossing, even if his character is a repugnant, obese creature, but heck, that just reminds you of what a great actor he can be. However, the film’s real stars are the bumbling crim duo, played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelson. I’ve been a fan of McNairy’s since I saw him in, In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Mendelson was simply dazzling in the Australian, crime family masterpiece, Animal Kingdom.
At first, Killing Them Softly might appear somewhat underwhelming, it isn’t particularly original and it doesn’t quite have the muster or verve of Dominik’s previous films, but it is undeniably, a continuation of the themes that inform the director’s films to date. With Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik is unrelentlessly forging a bold body of work, a taught, bruised and bloody, male body of work, which bares obvious comparison to Anthony Mann’s filmography.
Killing Them Softly is being screened at Dartington’s Barn Cinema from Friday, October 19.