One can deconstruct Andrew Dominik’s efforts in Killing Them Softly as an example of directorial bipolarity. He can elegantly frame tense and evocative dialogue between two characters, whether it is in the confines of a Lexus or an airport bar, with the sort of memorable aura that defined his previous feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This is transitioned to scenes of explicitly gruesome violence, where the battering rain is the only thing that muffles a gunshot. The two ideas, elegantly framed discussions followed by acts of kinetic hyper violence, are interlinked by sound bites of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Henry Paulson in overt strains of social relevance. The individual components to Killing Them Softly have a sort of trashy allure, but as the film attempts to align its thesis and actions, it struggles.
The narrative setup of Killing Them Softly is one seen in numerous crime stories. But as cliché-ridden as much of the setup might be, Dominik’s directorial influence affords the film some measure of visual uniqueness. Unlike the sun-soaked beauty that exemplified The Assassination of Jesse James, Killing Them Softly basks in an ugly glow. Scuzzy streets and dumb crime men occupy the frame for a good thirty minutes of the film, without the slightest glimmer of hopefulness to be found. And with the 2008 financial collapse playing such an integral part to the picture’s worldview, Dominik effectively shapes an excessively dreary and desperate landscape for his characters to roam.
The introduction of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) marks a significant setup in Killing Them Softly’s narrative direction. Whereas the first act of the film exposed the crassness of its dull criminals, Cogan introduces a measure of sophistication and high-mindedness to the dialogue – therein bringing forth a different class of criminal that is capable of explicating the business and ethics of criminality. One’s appreciation for the film moving forward is largely dependent on how enamored they are by the discussions that follow (as well as their tolerance to brutal violence). Discussions between Pitt and James Gandolfini are particularly interesting, as is a closing discussion between Pitt and Richard Jenkins, as they comment on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory speech. As interesting as much of the film happens to be, I can’t help but feel that it’s an empty effort, one that feeds its audience information as opposed to actually allowing them to make up their own mind. This was a slight problem I had with the narration in The Assassination of Jesse James, and something that feels particularly cumbersome in Killing Them Softly. It doesn’t completely strip the film of its significance, but when it comes to trashy crime films of 2012, I’d take the more narratively-driven Killer Joe over Dominik’s effort.