Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik is perhaps best known for his slow, contemplative and slow 2007 work of art, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – a film whose length lived up to its long-winded title (and did I mention it was slow?). But the assured, masterful direction by Dominik compelled me to seek out his debut film, Chopper. The 2000 release was one of the very first Australian films I’ve seen – I’m discounting Finding Nemo here — and it immediately turned me into an Andrew Dominik believer. The movie is also largely the reason I’ve forgiven Australia for its cricket team, and Eric Bana for Hulk.
Because where The Assassination of… was a carefully constructed, atmospheric, epic western, Chopper was a wickedly funny, dark, twisted and stylish crime film, that never took itself as art but had all the makings of it. And it was not long. Or slow. It is the movie Dominik should and deserves to be known for.
In Killing Them Softly, Dominik returns to his Chopper roots, but mixes it up, every now and then, with the considered deliberation of The Assassination of… and some blatant social commentary, to give us his most accomplished film to date, though one that falls short of being the masterpiece it is being hyped to be.
The film follows the aftermath of a mob heist by three amateur crooks, who are admittedly “not the smartest guys”, when the mob calls in a trusted enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), to investigate. Billed as a crime thriller, the movie’s plot is about as predictable as Brad Pitt’s elf-like, immortal good looks (he’s never going to be good for your ego), but it’s what Dominik manages to conjure on the path to the movie’s inevitable climax that constantly surprises you and is worth your ticket’s price.
Set in sparse New Orleans, the movie builds one of the most dramatic and tense heist scenes on camera, relying not on suggestive music but instead on silence as the operative prop, offset only by the nervous energy of actor Scoot McNairy. Then there’s the reinterpretation of the mob shakedown scene where the audience is subjected to just as much of the raw, gritty and stomach-churning treatment that Ray Liotta’s character is. There are also Tarantino-esque conversations between goons, black comedy like only the Coen Brothers can manage, and a warped nod to David Chase’s Sopranos through James Gandolfini’s pitiful Mickey whose conversations with Pitt’s Cogan set Dominic’s take on contemporary mafia apart from the recycled versions we’ve seen too many times.
And then there’s style – slow motion shattering of glass during a hit, use of Johnny’s Cash’s ‘The man comes around’ to introduce Cogan, and a surreal take on a hilarious stoner conversation, all establish Dominik as a uniquely gifted director. He is of course helped by the fantastic cast he has lined up in the movie – from Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn, who brings about the biggest laughs as a zoned-out goon, to the dependable Richard Jenkins, who is the lawyer face of the recession-hit mafia, and everyone in between.
All these elements should guarantee a classic, but the movie’s in-your-face social commentary makes it seem like Dominic’s trying a little too hard. The movie takes place during the 2008 recession and Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ pre-election hope campaign, and draws parallels between corporate America and the mob. And if anyone missed the 40,000 instances where the campaign videos are playing in the background, Pitt’s Cogan spells it out in the end too, so we get a quotable line for our Facebook status messages and believe that the movie is far more layered than we have discerned.
The pace of the movie is also uneven and at times, it veers so far off the point that the point then seems like a hair follicle on Anil Kapoor’s chest. There’s also something to be said about Brad Pitt, whose charisma lights up every scene he is in. The biggest hurdle Brad Pitt has faced in his movies is that he is Brad Pitt. Because no matter how good an actor Pitt is, there are always those moments where the movie star breaks out of the mask and the audience goes, “That was so Brad Pitt!”
If the sum of the movie’s remarkable scenes make for a great film, then Killing Them Softly deserves all its laurels, but seen as a whole, the movie’s like those exotic restaurants where delicious comes in such finite quantity that you need to go home and chomp on a box of Pringles to satiate your stomach. If you do the same, seek out Chopper, while at it.