By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 22, 2012 at 6:09AM
"What is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect," Barack Obama said at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. And that section of the speech opens Andrew Dominik's seething "Killing Them Softly," as he cuts the audio between white noise and the silent black title screen, signifying the blind emptiness of Obama's statement and the thematic current he'll be taking for the film. We are not a changed nation. We are not a nation of equals. The government are a bunch of children who need to be led by the hand into any decision making process and Americans at both the top and bottom rungs of the ladder all have their share of the blame to take. Uncompromising and uncommercial, divisive and brave, "Killing Them Softly" bitterly boils at the state of the nation.
With campaign billboards for Obama and McCain looming in the background of a poverty ravaged neighborhood, the greasy, smelly Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) is three hours late meeting Frankie (Scoot McNairy doing a pretty spot-on Casey Affleck impression). It's not a good start for the pair who are pitching themselves to Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) who's got a job for them. There's a protected high stakes poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) that they can hit and earn $30,000. It sounds dangerous, but here's the beauty part: Markie once knocked off his own game, pocketed the money and later bragged about it (sounds like any corporations you know?). If his own game gets hit again, he'll be the first suspect. And moreover, the higher ups won't care about who actually did it, and will likely kill Markie anyway if only to send a message that if you mess with their business, there will be consequences.
And this becomes a core idea that Dominik continues to riff on -- the disconnect between those who are responsible and those who have to hand out and live with the results of their actions. When Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) meets Richard Jenkins' middleman to the bosses that protect the game, it's blackly amusing that over the radio we hear John McCain suspending his campaign to deal with the financial crisis. While the government makes empty gestures, the everyday men on the ground don't have the option to put their lives on hold. Hired to take out Markie and the men responsible for the heist, Jackie notes that he prefers not to kill people that he knows...they beg and plead for their lives. He prefers some distance from his clients, giving him the chance to "kill them softly." Since Markie is a close friend, Jackie contracts out that job to Mickey (James Gandolfini), an East Coast hitman.
From the first frame of the movie to the absolutely acidic closing line (hopefully no one will spoil it as it will be one of the ages and is best experienced cold), "Killing Them Softly" makes the metaphor to the current state of the economy loud and clear. Throughout the film, in the background on TVs and radios, Obama and McCain talk and pontificate and make promises to the country while everyone else is trying to survive. Frankie recounts early in the picture that he had initially looked at a straight job organized by his parole officer, but it was another town over, from 4-12 at night, for a paltry wage, and he had no way to get to there. When he brought up the latter point, he was told to buy a car. With what money? Later in the pic an associate that Jackie hires to drive for him for $500, tries to pocket a $1 tip off the table at a diner. Meanwhile, Jenkins' middleman makes it clear that even the bosses up top are now scrutinizing the kind of expenditures they're making on guys like Jackie.
Carrying over to the soundtrack, Dominik continues to run with his thematic thread. Jackie gets a brilliant character introduction with Johnny Cash's "When The Man Comes Around" playing with these lyrics pumping loud and clear: "There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names / An’ he decides who to free and who to blame / Everybody won’t be treated all the same / There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down / When the man comes around." Later in the film, Gershwin's "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" intones "You work, you save, you worry so / But you can't take your dough when you go, go, go." But it's the classic "It's Only A Paper Moon" that sums it up: "It's a Barnum and Bailey world / Just as phony as it can be / But it wouldn't be make-believe / If you believed in me." Promises, promises...
While Dominik's thematic approach is pervasive, it's not heavy handed by the simple fact that it's so well woven into the fabric of the story. In fact, it is the story. Crime films have always been about desperate men in desperate situations, but "Killing Them Softly" gives them real world circumstances that make theft, murder-for-hire, drug dealing and other unsavory jobs quasi-legitimate, if only for the fact that they are available and they pay. But even Jackie knows it's dog-eat-dog out there. "We're all just on our own," he sneers as Obama markets his message of hope and a united community of different but equal on election night.
Wickedly cynical and surging with furious anger, "Killing Them Softly" won't be for everybody. As a straight up genre flick, it's an anti-thriller -- the actual hunt for Russell and Frankie is pretty much skipped over entirely, and solved with a couple lines of dialogue. And Gandolfini's sad sack, beaten down Mickey is the clearest indication that Dominik has no interest in delivering your standard thriller about criminal lowlives. That character's brief arc goes in a direction that will initially leave many baffled, as he's purely there as a symbol, not to serve the plot. And tie that all in to a bracing critique of the nation and a mostly actionless movie (though when it does come, it's brutal and beautiful; one POV slo-mo sequence in particular is dazzling), "Killing Them Softly" is more brains than brawn.
But it's also breathtakingly brilliant and admirably ambitious. Certain to court controversy, "Killing Them Softly" captures in no uncertain terms the frustration and failed promises the American public as a whole have dealt with as well as the lack of accountability and inability to take difficult but needed action to right the ship. Is this the first economic/political gangster movie ever made? All we know is that we want to see it again to keep digging into this dense and penetrating film. Easily a contender for one of the best movies of the year, "Killing Them Softly" pulses and burns in a way few films ever do. [A]