“Killing Them Softly”… Blood pleasure

On the outside, the films of the director Andrew Dominik come with the promise of violent entertainment for an adult audience. Even their names are sanguinary. There was, first, Chopper, which featured an attempted assassination in prison, a self-inflicted ear mutilation, and shootings too numerous to count. Then came The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, surely the Western with the most explicative title since Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The title of Dominik’s third film, in comparison, is positively Disneyesque: Killing Them Softly. A viewer who strolls into the theatre seeking visceral thrills could be tempted to walk into these films – unless he is familiar with Dominik, in whose case what you see is certainly not what you get. His interests lie not in the staging of frisson-inducing action, but in the dissection of the brooding male psyche. And boy, do the males in Killing Them Softly brood.

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The film gets going with a plan to stage a heist and make away with money from a poker game run under the aegis of the mob. The men assembled in this discussion are three in number – John “The Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), who hatches the plan, and Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), the lowlifes who will pull stocking masks over their heads carry it out – but thereon, Dominik groups his brooding males in twos. First, Frankie and Russell wait it out in a car and chew the fat. Then, after the heist, we move to a different car, and a different duo chewing the fat: a mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) and an enforcer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is hired to track down the perpetrators of the heist. What Cogan will do with them is clear the instant we hear Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who oversees the poker game, warn Russell: “You know they’re going to kill you.” But that moment is still far away.

In the meantime, we gather around another twosome, entrusted with the task of finding out if Trattman did the job himself. Then we move back to Frankie and Russell, as the latter, in a drug haze, narrates a very funny story about his misadventures while dognapping pricey pets to Florida. (The number of men populating this flashback? Two.) More dual groupings occur: Cogan and Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hired hitman; Cogan and Frankie; Squirrel and Frankie. Even at the end, in a morgue, the corpses laid out side by side total up to two. All this is no doubt fascinating as a formal exercise. (You could, as I did, keep yourself busy just by waiting for the stray scenes with an odd number of people.) But it all doesn’t really come together. When Tarantino writes these male-bonding riffs or as Scorsese stages them, they explode with junkie-eyed derangement, leaping off the screen and landing on our quivering laps. But Dominik, a less flashy and more existentially inclined filmmaker, seeks to arrest our attention through endless conversations about work and women. Tedium sets in after a while.

Killing Them Softly is afflicted with the malaise that prevails over a lot of what passes for post-modernism. The things you take away from the material in order to deconstruct it are often the things without which the work cannot exist. What’s left, in this case, without the pulse-quickening suspense of when, where, how and whether Frankie and Russell will get caught? A character study – but that succeeds only if the characters are compelling enough to be studied. With a running time of barely over one-and-a-half hours, no one really registers, though there is a lot of juicy acting on display. And the subtext of the bleakness of American economy (the film is set towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with Obama waiting in the wings), where recession has hit even crime, is laughably overdone – it all seems like one endless prelude to Pitt’s big speech in the end, about America being a business. But connoisseurs of big-screen movie violence will want to check out a murder depicted in slow motion. A cocked gun. A trigger pulled. A bullet released past drops of rain. Shards of broken glass. Bits of brain. It’s bloodshed as a ballad. Somewhere, Peckinpah must be smiling.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

12 thoughts on ““Killing Them Softly”… Blood pleasure

  1. Agree with Gradwolf. Never thought I’d say this, but this felt like Drive without any of its warmth.


  2. @BR did you review “the american”?i couldnot shake off the movie after my first viewing.its more european arthouse than hollywood,but i dug it completely.i think thats what david bordwell meant when he said “the envelope is the message”.


  3. aneek: I loved that film. Didn’t review it though. Didn’t know much about it when I finally saw it, and was shock — SHOCKED! — by what Clooney does early on to that woman with him. That pretty much set the bar that this was no “Hollywood” movie.


  4. BR : Adding 2 unrelated comments here – i wonder what it would take for a Kamal or any other actor of that stature to do what George Clooney did in this movie ? A bona-fide Hollywood superstar acting in a borderline Euro Docudrama – its far as you can go – its the same guy who did Oceans 11. BTW, he actually helped finance the movie as well.


  5. BR, chk this out, the first 6 mins from 0:40. What composing and singing is all about. In fact the opening riff is inspired from 90s pop hit “Sunny came home”, but over that he has laid the catchy Sudha dhanyasi phrases

    Has Unni ever been challenged this much in Tamil? This must be just a sample BTW, from Sharath’s repertoire(composed maybe for the show), and he is an anachronism in this day and age


  6. vijay: “180” was easily one of the most interesting and innovative soundtracks in Tamil in a long, long while. Listening to it, I knew it would not do well :-)


  7. Thanks for sharing. I don’t know why we don’t see more of him in tamil cinema. His sound arrangement in “180” were quite inspiring, I thought he was destined for more. One reason that I probably think makes him unpopular is that as a judge in these shows, Sharath speaks his mind out(and rightly so) and doesn’t beat around the bush wrt criticism of performances, a style which doesn’t go well with our tamil audience I believe and unfortunately he comes out to be “cocky”. I don’t know how else one could possibly learn from people who are really potent in their field. I would take that anyday over Unni or Srinivas’s “feel/dynamics/bhavam blah” without getting to the point.


  8. We don’t see more of him in Tamil just because of his music. It has always been accessible only to a few. Even his malayalam songs for that matter. I dont think the way he judges affects his chances. James Vasanthan was far more blunt in his appraisals, atleast Sharath has a sense of humor. Chk this out, hilarious:

    The only good thing Kolaveri has done is spawn these kind of videos.

    And this one by Imman. He seems to have reformed his ways and become a good citizen :-)

    In that well edited video, I liked the shots of Ghoshal quietly sipping some beverage going over the lyrics, playing the air violin and Imman finally giving a victorious satisfied smile at the end of the recording.
    Now if only somebody had these kind of videos from 60s/80s :-)


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