It opens with a series of unnerving stutters, crosscutting between the credits—silent, stark, white on black—and images of greasy hoodlum Frank (Scoot McNairy) exiting a darkened building for the sodden daylight of some profoundly rundown US city while one Senator Obama fills the soundtrack with something about “the American promise of life.” As Killing Them Softly ambles toward its flamboyantly cynical conclusion, the city becomes only more a shambles of windblown refuse and houses collapsing in slow motion, Frank and his colleagues become only more hunched with fear, and the broadcasts of speeches made by Obama and Bush that follow the characters everywhere they go become only more redolent of a distinctly American combination of stoic apologia and unconvincing optimism. The story is set in 2008, only four years ago, though this is very much a period piece, with the financial crisis and swap of presidents functioning as an increasingly overstated counterpoint to the film’s seedy milieu of robbery, gambling, dope and murder. The plot is unremarkably generic, featuring a heist followed by a series of killings. But Killing Them Softly isn’t about its plot.
New Zealand director Andrew Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was so tailored for my personal tastes that I resented it. A downbeat western following a fascinatingly strange historical trajectory and high on atmospheres derivative of Terrence Malick, Jesse James struck me as pandering. It kept getting in its own way with precious stylistics. The funny thing about Killing Me Softly is that something like the reverse of Jesse James’ problem has happened. The film’s One Big Idea—“America’s not a country, it's a business,” goes the penultimate line of dialogue—is ultimately far too simplistic to sustain such an incessant refrain as it gets treated to here in scene after scene. Yet Dominik’s determination to impart a directorial signature actually complicates his message in some truly engaging ways. That arresting opening described above is complimented by a bravura, tension-filled sequence in which Frank and an Australian junky, glistening with about six weeks worth of sweat, rob a poker game populated by mafia; by a drug-taking scene built from woozy push-ins and gauzy flickers of amber light; by an assassination scene slowed down to such a glacial frame rate that the victim’s head turns a windshield into a spider web one crack at a time.
And the stylistic gambles aren’t just to do with sound effects and vision. Dominik’s screenplay, an updated adaption of George V. Higgin’s Coogan’s Trade, makes room for an absorbing series of extended monologues—most memorable are those made by James Gandolfini’s aging, groggy, sex-and-booze addicted hitman—riddled with anxiety, rampant misogyny, self-pity and squeamishness. Quentin Tarantino made talky crime films into a subgenre, but Dominik’s is a different variety of verbose thug. All the characters in Killing Me Softly are men, and all are repugnant in the extreme—who cares about these scumbags? But get them talking for a while, and you find that you want to hear more.
So take this as a wary recommendation. Killing Me Softly is at once painfully obvious yet, somehow, captivating. The cast is uniformly marvelous, with a great supporting turn from Richard Jenkins doing mob middle management, and yes, Brad Pitt, a character actor who just happens to be very handsome, as the most sensible assassin of the bunch. He’s something of a softie when it comes to killing, but he understands the bottom line. The film’s final words? “So fucking pay me!”