An accusation occasionally directed at some of the greatest American gangster films, is that they might be glamorising the lifestyles of their criminal characters. Certainly, no such thing can be said for Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which almost goes out of its way to make the organised crime world unappealing.
We spend a good deal of the film in the company of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of deeply unpleasant low-level criminals, who chat mostly about robberies, drugs and prostitutes, and for whom every sentence includes at least one variation of the word ‘f**k’.
Their big plan is to hold up a local card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Sometime prior, Markie admitted to getting away with robbing his own game, now if it happens again, they think, he’ll be the one who takes the blame for it.
Brad Pitt might be the nominal lead, but doesn’t appear until quite late in the film, underplaying it as a world-weary hitman brought in to deal with the situation following the heist.
Unlike the gorgeous scenery showcased in Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James…, most of the film is shot in a colourless, gritty, realistic fashion, punctuated by sudden brutal moments of violence. One odd contrast to this occurs in a rain-soaked, slow motion assassination scene that feels a little out-of-place like something out of The Matrix.
The film all takes place during the presidential campaign of 2008, and reflects the economic climate, showing how the recession affects the criminal world too (this was added in by Dominik, the source novel was written in the 1970s). It’s a neat idea but the film does tend to ram it home with every possible opportunity for a TV or radio featuring political sound bites from the era utilised.
It can’t be a coincidence that Killing Them Softly casts actors like Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, best known for playing mafia roles, as rather pathetic criminal characters here. The associations their presence brings may be intended to deliberately contrast with the different criminal world on display here, which it succeeds in, but on the other hand can serve as a reminder of their superior work elsewhere.
Andrew Dominik clearly has a lot of talent as a filmmaker, and I certainly want to see more from him, but when he makes us wait so long between films, the result needs to be something a bit more substantial than this.