Savage critique of the American Ideal? Instant classic? Yes, and very nearly.
Killing Them Softly has the feel of a film on a mission. The opening scenes are filled with carefully arranged shots of New Orleans’ barren landscape, the dialogue sparse, the project’s biggest star nowhere to be seen. Like Napoleon (bear with me, I promise this is going somewhere), the director seemed to be marshalling his forces, waiting for the ideal moment to deploy them to greatest effect. The result is a highly enjoyable and yet intricately detailed motion picture. The ingredients are all there to make Killing Them Softly an instant cult hit.
The cinematography is genuinely outstanding. There is a real sense that every shot has been carefully planned, not just so that it will look good, but so that it will make the viewer think. It is in this determination that the film’s true strength lies. Gangster flick it may be, but Killing Them Softly is just as much a film about America’s decay, a nation’s realisation that the hope and promise of the American Dream is a luxury afforded by prosperity.
The choice of location is clearly significant – New Orleans, an iconic US city, the Big Easy, home of the good times, left derelict in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The timing of the film is equally important – released at the end of a largely disappointing first term for Democrat Barack Obama, set shortly before his rise to power, in the dying days of the Bush administration, one of the most unpopular in history. In many films, we might consider such details arbitrary choices, the first thing that popped into the screenwriters’ heads. Not here. Throughout the film, the speeches of both men, one bearing grim tidings of financial collapse and government bailouts, the other, the message of hope and change we remember so well, serve as a backdrop – the distinction apparently unimportant as their words ring out in drab surroundings, the players apparently unmoved for most of the film’s duration.
The screenplay may have been based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, but that vehicle has clearly been hijacked for the director’s own purposes. What might have been a picture with a similar feel to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, for example, a tale of mid-level gangsters doing a number on each other, clearing up each other’s messes and then complaining bitterly about it, was given an overtly political feel by these apparently simple choices.
Herein lay the film’s main flaw. Hearing either Bush or Obama speak at roughly fifteen minute intervals as the soundtrack to some deserted cityscape can get a little wearing when it has been obvious since the first ten minutes that the film is being ‘political’. James Gandolfini’s character seems to have been cast in the role of ‘America’ rather than one of Brad Pitt’s gangster friends – once a somebody, a big shot, now ageing badly, drinking and whoring his way through a cameo appearance. This is not to say that the actors are particularly to blame for the way the project turned out. Perhaps expectations of Mr Pitt on my part were low, but his performance as slight anti-hero, a middle ranking enforcer for the criminal powers that be, was nicely understated, his menace and power lying in dead pan delivery and brooding stares.
So, it seems that the film’s shortcomings did not lie in the components, such as soundtrack, visuals, individual performances, which usually determine a film’s quality but in its overall feel. By trying too hard to be a classic, Killing Them Softly overstated its case. Despite ticking all those boxes, the director, Andrew Dominik ended up slightly forcing his impression of modern America on the viewer. The closing scene perhaps summed this up best. A grungy bar, Barack Obama giving a speech on the TV. Pitt, utterly contemptuous of its message turns to his employer and flatly declares: ‘This is America, in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a community, it’s a business, so fucking pay me’.