Ever since the controversial days of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the Wild Bunch (1969), American movies moved from showing us violence to savoring it, reveling in it; making it a thing of horrific beauty. It was shocking in those days. Now we are accustomed to slow motion bullets forging colorful holes through falling bodies in a ghoulish, cinematic dance. This, of course, is not everyone’s cup of tea but when it comes to crime and violence on the silver screen we expect there to be some splashes of red. More on that later.
Stylishly directed by Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly is a crime film that you have seen a hundred times before but fortunately it is peppered with a half a dozen character driven scenes, most of which could have been juicy, one act plays carried by top-shelf performances. The success of these scenes is due, in no small part, to the book on which this film is based, Cogan’s Bluff (1974) written by George Higgins. It should be noted that Higgins’ novels have had far reaching influence in the movies. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino have dropped Higgins’ name as having inspired their work. His biggest success, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was adapted into a film of the same name. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum in one of his best performances, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) is one of the best crime films ever made and certainly one of the best films of the 1970’s. Common among all of Higgins’ works are lengthy conversations between criminals of varying social classes which are often cynically funny, dangerous and engaging.
Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and a number of solid character actors (special shout out to Richard Jenkins who plays a weary, middle management criminal) all get to revel in the sharply written dialog (adapted screenplay by Dominik). The workaday lives of these criminals is shown in rich detail and then side-swiped by sudden bursts of violence. These bursts of violence gave me mixed feelings right from the start. The violence becomes so stylized and Dominik lingers so long in these moments that they feel disconnected from the rest of the film which operates in a more transparent way. The whole film suffers from feeling fragmented anyway. All of the pieces are there, they all work but they don’t coagulate. The biggest misstep of all is Dominik’s decision to place his story in the throws of the 2008 financial crisis/presidential campaign. Throughout the film’s running time we are exposed to tv and radio clips of Bush, Obama and others sounding off about the state of our country. Most of these moments are awkwardly staged in a way that undermines their intent. Dominik wants us to know that criminals had it rough too. They had to make some changes in how they did business when the economy tanked too. Subtle it ain’t.
Having said all of that, there is no denying that Dominik is a talented director. His previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007) was a hugely underrated work. That film was gloriously visual and beautifully meditative. I am still anticipating whatever his next project will be. Killing Them Softly is an uneven experience. It effortlessly gets into the groove of the Higgins crime mise-en-scène and then falls out of it here and there to the detriment of the film’s cumulative effect.