Even for a gangster movie Killing Them Softly is grisly. It’s surprising how elaborately it also functions as an allegory for the Stock Market collapse of 2008, a far less physical but considerably more detrimental series of crimes. The film was written and directed by Andrew Dominick, the Australian best known for his lyrical, revisionist Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That film was a masterpiece, a poetic historical tragedy that introduced Brad Pitt as a born-again great actor. Only Dominick’s third feature, this is his second already tackling the ruthless landscape of American outlaws. With Brad Pitt back as the central anti-hero, Dominick’s latest is cynical and violent—maybe too much so for some—but its formal audacity, thematic wit, and chilling lead performance make it a visceral and intellectual piece of high-brow pulp art.
Brad Pitt plays mob enforcer Jackie Cogan who’s assigned to punish the hoods (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) who unwisely knocked-over a mob-financed poker game. Analogous to Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the crisis it fomented, the heist unbalances the criminal underworld; big-spending players will no longer risk their cash, which causes problems for the whole black market economy. Jackie is summoned to set a precedent (don’t mess with the Mafia!) and to restore order and faith in the system. He uses every trick in the hit man handbook—beatings, shootings, intimidation, and deception—to that end. If the stick-up men are crooked investors, taking advantage of a sensitive fiscal ecosystem, then Jackie is a government bailout with all the associated unscrupulousness.
Pitt’s performance—yet another in a recent streak of tour-de-forces—is terrifyingly calm. Jackie’s a tranquil surface atop fearsome depths, like a beckoning hot tub filled with hydrochloric acid. He’s a sociopath, no doubt, but he’s no sadist; he’s pragmatic, a business-like problem-solver that trades uppercuts instead of bonds and carries hollow-points instead of fountain pens. In furtive rendezvous with a shark-suited mob rep (Richard Jenkins), Jackie expresses his distaste for face-to-face slayings: “There’s too many feelings,” he says. He’s a terminator who prefers to dish out homicides like they’re pink slips. Through his gutsy conceit, Dominick blurs any moral distinction between corporatized thugs and thuggish corporations. Although his allegory is slightly belabored with overused campaign-speech sound bites, the director’s ideas are still caustic and urgent.
In Jesse James, Dominick displayed his gift for elegant imagery and his eagerness for aesthetic and stylistic experimentation. In Killing Them Softly, he stages the instigating robbery with a conscious banality, stretching it out like taffy to the point of tedious intensity. It’s no Michael Mann set piece pulled off by swift, efficient professionals; it’s an exercise in ineptitude featuring two amateurish bums in dishwashing gloves and panty-hose shrouds. Later, an assassination unfolds in operatic slow motion amidst a gale of falling rain and shattering glass. A conversation between conspirators intermittently fades in and out as if from consciousness, ebbing and flowing like a conversation attempted from a heroin coma. Scored to dreamy golden oldies (“It’s Only A Paper Moon”, for instance), the violence is nauseating and the victims are as pitiable as bunny rabbits. The carnage has a merciless horror that’s hard to forgive or forget.
The world of Killing Them Softly is an asphalt jungle indeed: predators and prey on the prowl in the most Darwinian sense. American individualism is the target of Dominick’s cinematic scrutiny, and Jackie Cogan embodies its dog-eat-dog competitiveness—that strangle-your-neighbor-with-your-bootstraps kind of corrupted capitalist dream. Admittedly, the movie has an avante garde narrative shapelessness (especially during James Gandolfini’s distended romantic monologues) that can be trying, and Jesse James was definitely a subtler film. Still, with its overcast monochromatic look and its sequences of hideous human cruelty, the film is gorgeous in its very ugliness, hypnotically hooking you before pulling the trigger. Killing Them Softly is a gentle whisper followed by a brass-knuckle sandwich. It leaves a bruise.