KILLING-THEM-SOFTLY-poster

A strong exercise in Scorsese imitation, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly may well be the most depressing experience to which multiplex moviegoers are treated in 2012.  Set in a bleak expanse of rust belt squalor during the meltdown of 2008, the gangland story begins when small-time gangster and dry cleaner the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) recruits two crooks, naive Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and ne’er-do-well Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to pull a masked hold-up of the gambling establishment run by Markie Trattman (GoodFellas alumnus Ray Liotta), who is to be framed for staging a robbery of his own game and customers.  Markie, true to his name, is the perfect mark for the crime because he previously staged just such an inside job and admitted to it and so will be the obvious prime suspect if the same thing happens again.  Into this situation enters the mysterious enforcer Jackie (Brad Pitt), assigned the tasks of investigating what actually happened and meting out the appropriate sanctions.  Flying in to assist him is button man Mickey (James Gandolfini), previously a class act but now a sloppy, erratic drunk going through a divorce.  The upshot is that, however it all ends up going down, none of this business is going to be pretty.

On one level, Killing Them Softly is a tough, unsentimental crime film and a set of character studies.  At the same time, however, it operates as an unsubtle and tactless allegory about the decline of American prosperity and the bankruptcy of the ideals traditionally associated with it, with samples of speeches by Bush and Obama running parallel to the action.  The words of the title appear onscreen in succession as part of a fractured, abrasive montage of optimistic Obamaspeak coupled with grating noise and shots of trash blown in the wind that sweeps a desolate lot walked by doomed Frankie on his way to meet the Squirrel – a representative entrepreneur and criminal mediocrity, there being no distinction between the two things as depicted in this story.  Killing Them Softly posits the existence of two types of players in this world: statists and businessmen.  All are gangsters who run their rackets through subterfuge and coercion.  In one of the film’s cheapest and least imaginative moments, Jackie sits in a bar and mocks the Obama speech playing on television and goes on to smugly thumb his nose at the American experiment itself, denouncing Thomas Jefferson for getting drunk, screwing his slaves, and keeping his children in bondage.  This country is a business, Jackie asserts, and every man looks out for himself like a beast in the jungle.  Or, as Mickey succinctly puts it and sums up the story, “It’s all bullshit.”

More than simply a downbeat, despairing sociopolitical tirade or declaration of nihilism, however, Killing Them Softly offers more than enough to make it recommendable.  Multiple character creations compel viewer interest, with Gandolfini and McNairy in particular making the most of their scenes.  Gandolfini immediately establishes sympathy and scorn with his characterization of a tough but dissipated and finally pathetically apathetic thug going through a divorce and wasting his life on liquor and prostitutes, which allows the actor the opportunity to deliver some 200-proof obscenity (causing an elderly woman at the screening I attended to become audibly agitated, surely the mark of fine movie profanity) in high gangster style.  Liotta, though he has only a few brief scenes, also appears to solid effect.  Less reliable than the impeccable acting is the selection of pop songs, which, in faithful Scorsese tradition, are rather overutilized.  “The Man Comes Around”, for instance, is the perfect song to establish Jackie’s seriousness and formidability as an enforcer, while “It’s Only a Paper Moon” assists the screenplay thematically and casts an amusing irony over events; but is it really necessary that the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” accompanies the scene in which Russell shoots up heroin?  On the whole, however, Killing Them Softly is an admirably adult and serious film, heavier on the dialogue than on the flash and action, and will test the patience of those expecting a typical shoot-em-up.  4 of 5 possible stars.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Killing Them Softly is:

9. Diversity-skeptical. Jackie isn’t buying it.

8. Sexist/anti-slut.  Women are whores and trash.  Mickey’s wife has been unfaithful.  Russell recounts for Frankie a sickening episode of random sex with an insane nymphomaniac, imitating the ludicrous sounds she made, and telling how she afterward threatened to commit suicide, to which Frankie casually replies that they all behave that way.

7. Anti-torture.  Markie, under interrogation, receives a beating so unpleasantly savage and bloody that no viewer should be left with the idea that violence is glamorous and fun.

6. Antiwar.  During the credits, “Money (That’s What I Want)” fades into a lugubrious sound collage that includes helicopter noise and what sounds like echoing urination.

5. Anti-drug/drug-ambivalent.  Russell, through heroin, becomes an even more disgusting mess than he is at the beginning.  Cigarettes, however, retain a certain grimy chic, though one corporate type gangster is more than once offended by the odor.

4. Pro-miscegenation.  Mickey enjoys himself with a black hooker (who, however, frustrates him by treating her anus “like a national treasure”) and recommends Jewesses to Jackie.

3. Anti-business.  Criminals are businessmen and vice versa.  The “corporate mentality” has left even organized crime unmanned and degraded.

2. Anti-state.  Bush and Obama are phonies.  Jefferson was a drunkard who owned and abused slaves, thus discrediting all subsequent U.S. history and achievement.  The ridiculousness of gun and drug control is illustrated by the fact that, though no government agency interferes with the mob murders in the film, hitman Mickey was once arrested for gun possession while on a bird hunting trip, while Russell is eventually nabbed by the authorities not for armed robbery, but for mutually voluntary and perfectly ethical drug trafficking.

1. Nihilist/anti-human.  The sky is always dark.  “It’s all bullshit.”  The human condition is vile, obscene, and absurd.

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