Film Review: Killing Them Softly

Dir. Andrew Dominik
Score: 7.4

To begin with, let’s just put our subjective proclivities out on the table: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was, in this critic’s estimation, one of the cinematic highlights of the aughts — so sumptuous in its storytelling, so well-crafted and absorbing in its execution, I sat in stone-cold rhapsody for the entirety of its 160 minutes, and sat there for even a few minutes more until well after the final credits had rolled and the houselights came back up.

So, let’s suffice it to say my anticipation of this particular title — Dominik’s first since “Assassination” (and, along with 2000′s Chopper, only the third of his career) — was on the high-end of the scale. The film, a heist-and-retribution affair is certainly no Assassination — at a scant 95 minutes, nor is it asking to be — but it’s plenty impressive on its own merits.

We follow the caper from the start, when a dry cleaner known as the “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) puts together a shaky two-man team, nervous Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and strung-out Aussie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), in order to rob a high-stakes underground poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). The reason the Squirrel thinks he can get away with this? Because Markie has admitted to having his own game robbed some years before, and therefore, the heat will undoubtedly fall on his head and no one else.

This more or less works as the Squirrel has planned, but for the organization behind the poker game hiring of a heavy-duty cleaner named Jackie (Brad Pitt) in the aftermath. Jackie, no fool he, believes Markie’s denials (even though he’ll still have to get whacked as a matter of course), and fairly easily traces the caper down to its true point of origin, which is bad news for all involved. Jackie is a pro’s pro, a man who’s steady gaze and affectless resignation speaks to a full life spent in service to such men as the nameless driver (Richard Jenkins), an emissary sent from the real head office — an unspecified organization whose tendency towards maddeningly standard corporate behaviors suggests anything from Bank of America to AOL — to negotiate the job with Jackie.

As good as he is — and when we see the man at work, we can’t help but be taken with his cold, calculated artistry — Jackie isn’t flawless. He initially brings in a separate hitman for part of the job, a washed-up alcoholic named Mickey (James Gandolfini, and God, how I missed that labored mouth-breathing delivery of his), who spends several days holed up in a posh hotel room, getting drunk and hiring hookers, perhaps a flash of sentimentality on Jackie’s part that ends up just being another mess to have to clean up later.

Throughout the film, Dominik employs an interesting background soundtrack of political soundbites and speeches, taken from Missers Bush, McCain and Obama from the 2008 election. Every car radio is blaring their stump speeches, every bar TV airs their talking points, and every line can be taken as an on-the-nose assessment of the character’s situations: “…Each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we want” Obama intones as we first meet the Ratso-voiced Frankie, slumping through a debris-covered slab of concrete aqueduct.

The musical soundtrack, too, employs a similar on-point style: When we first meet Jackie, Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” helpfully plays on his car stereo; when Russell and Frankie celebrate their new-found riches by shooting up, VU’s “Heroin” plays ever-so-gently in the background.

This is not a film that aims at misdirecting you from the point it’s trying to make (the soundtrack to the closing credits is Barrett Strong’s “Money”, after all). While Assassination is long and rich with material (culled from Ron Hansen’s excellent source novel), here, the story itself is more barebones and gruel-thin (money is stolen, the perps are dispatched) but Dominik still mines it for every erg of effect.

Along the way, he employs a creative and seemingly inexhaustible bag of visual story-telling tricks — from a camera mounted on a swinging car door to an extreme super slo-mo assassination, more captivatingly beautiful than any on-screen murder this side of vintage Scorsese. He also is working from his own clever and tautly lurid screenplay (based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins), filled with memorable lines — most of which, alas, cannot be printed in mixed company — against a backdrop of the final throes of the 2008 election and then-President Bush’s ill-planned financial bail-outs of the very same giant banks that put the country on the brink of financial Armageddon. “America isn’t a country,” Jackie says very near the end, “it’s just a business.” Once again, he’s right on the nose.

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