Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), the awaited follow-up to his phenomenal and under-appreciated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), is a mafia movie that takes the subtext of the mafia film and renders it into a film that’s surprising, hilarious, visceral and, above all, well acted. The subtext of most mafia movies—most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990)—is that organized crime is simply a venue where the darkest side of the American dream realizes itself. Essentially, the mafia represents capitalism with a heavy infusion of violence. And, as Killing Them Softly makes abundantly clear, the economy of legally dubious activities is just as susceptible to recession as Wall Street is.
The event that places the fragile economy of Killing Them Softly in jeopardy is not a housing crisis but the robbery of a poker game. Looking for a scheme to get rich quickly, a small-time dry cleaner, Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), hires two recently released cons— Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy)—to rob Markie’s (Ray Liotta) poker game. Squirrel’s rationalization is that Markie will take the fall because he has already been known to rob his own games (he’s merely the host, not a player, so it’s not like he’s stealing his own money). The mob will pin the robbery on Markie, allowing Squirrel, Russell, and Frankie to escape suspicion and make a clean getaway. At least, that’s the plan anyways.
While the robbery goes off without a hitch, the aftermath doesn’t. Russell, under the influence of heroin, brags about the heist to hitman Dylon (Sam Shepherd), who talks to the mob (represented by Richard Jenkins), who hires another hit man, Jackie (Brad Pitt), to clean it up and get the local vice trade economy back on its feet. Jackie enlists the help of Mickey (James Gandolfini) and, just like George W. Bush and Henry Paulson attempted to quell concerns about the economy with the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the two hit men restore confidence in the gambling racket, one hit at a time.
The subtext of Killing Them Softly is both a blessing and a curse. Over the robbery, Dominik superimposes George W. Bush’s speech on the state of the economy on the eve of the recession and continuously links Jackie to the bailout (his arrival in town is audibly represented both by Johnny Cash’s song “The Man Comes Around” (2002) and Bush’s defense of the bailout), providing a pointed ideological critique of American capitalism. That said, the problem is that Dominik gets a little carried away with the linkages between the two, putting the subtext in danger of becoming the text itself. (To be fair, the version of the film I viewed was a rough cut, and I screened the film in a test screening, so changes will no doubt be made.) This is a smart, well-constructed film, and the heavy-handed treatment of the metaphor is rather jarring.
Yet the film remains a rewarding experience—even if the version I saw, indeed, turns out to be the final cut—because of Dominik’s screenplay (adapted from George V. Higgin’s 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade—his visual style and the performances he gets out of the film’s colorful cast. While it will no doubt be frustrating to some, the screenplay doesn’t really have a structure; it’s a film told in short vignettes, with dialogue exchanges ranging from the subject of prostitution to stealing and smuggling pure bred dogs to Florida in order to make a profit (and to possibly engage in sexual acts with said pure bred dogs en route). The tone of these exchanges is half-Quentin Tarantino, half-Coen Brothers, darkly hilarious without feeling overly polished. Significantly, unlike some lesser Tarantino films, the dialogue never feels like it belongs to the same extratextual entity (Tarantino the screenwriter!); it belongs to the characters.
Secondly, Dominik is able to render violence in a visceral and yet incredibly poetic fashion. Like Martin Scorsese, he relies on the juxtaposition of pop music and slow-motion violence to achieve his ends. However, Dominik’s violence is far more grotesque: a beating produces blood and vomit, and an assassination in the rain captures blossoms of blood through a slowly shattered window.
Finally, while Dominik gets the usually great performances from Pitt and Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are the real surprises here. They carry the first half-hour of the film (Pitt’s role, like that of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), is smaller than one might initially assume) with their gutter trash banter and fully realized performances. They set the pins up for Pitt, who, in a scene during President Obama’s victory speech, rolls a strike with the subtext: “America isn’t a country; it’s a business. So pay me, motherfucker.”