FIVE STAR FILM: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly (USA, 2012)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta

It's fast becoming a habit that my favourite film of a given year doesn't come out until the year is almost through. Last year brought us many great films, but come October I was still fretting than no film I had seen was quite worthy of my maximum rating. Then We Need To Talk About Kevin came along and blew my mind, and while I have attempted to catch up on the likes of Drive and Take Shelter, it remains my favourite film of 2011.
In 2012 I find myself in an almost identical position. There have been a number of great films released this year, with Berberian Sound Studio having held the top spot and coming perilously close to perfection. Then along comes Killing Them Softly, the latest from Andrew Dominik, which arrives without the relative fanfare of Chopper or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Suffice to say, it will take something extraordinary to prevent it from being my film of the year, being the best cinematic crime drama since Goodfellas and a masterpiece in its own right.
When reviewing the film on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mark Kermode remarked that Dominik's key ability as a director is being able to tell a story at the right pace and for the right length of time. Killing Them Softly is an extremely efficient piece of filmmaking, being nothing but pure, visceral storytelling in which not a single frame is wasted. While Jesse James played on the languor and weariness of its main character to reflect the slower pace of 19th-century life, this is short, sharp and straight to the point. It begins exactly where it needs to begin, and ends exactly where it needs to end, without a syllable or obvious artistic flourish more.
The comparison between this film and Goodfellas is not entirely misplaced. Both are period dramas rooted to some extent in the 1970s, and much of them entail characters who were involved in drugs and have become decrepit. The presence of Ray Liotta in both films leads us to presume this is how his Henry Hill would have turned out, had he not been killed or got out while he still could. The difference is that Martin Scorsese's film, like The Godfather trilogy, has a feeling of ironic nostalgia in amongst the brutal violence. While Scorsese romanticised the gangsters' world in order to puncture said romance, Dominik cuts to the chase and suffers no fools.
A more accurate comparison, in terms of narrative, would be with Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. In Ferrara's film, the foreground story about the Lieutenant solving a crime (the rape of a nun) is married to the background events of the baseball series, which ultimately decides the Lieutenant's fate and leads to him being gunned down by the mob. This time around the foreground story involves Liotta's card game being knocked over for a second time, and the background is the banks being bailed out and the election of Barack Obama. Like Bad Lieutenant, the foreground and background of Killing Them Softly reflect each other and combine to shape the fate of the characters.
The film draws a parallel between the bailing out of the banks and the fallout of Liotta's game being robbed. Both organisations are depicted as being run by criminals with no morally redeemable features, with both needing to be straightened out by individuals who are no more noble or legitimate in their aims. In each case certain individuals are removed (or in the game's case, killed) as a public gesture of reassurance: their departures send a strong signal that something is being done, even if their disposal ends up having no positive effect or practical benefits whatsoever.
Some reviews have complained that this device or comparison is clunky, believing that the film would have worked just as well without it. In fact it adds to the film, partially by preventing it from seeming generic, and partially by adding a greater feeling of the characters being burdened, and in the very pits of their own personal hells. This is not an overly simple, 'bankers-are-baddies' thriller like The International, which is just cashing in on contemporary political events. It's a crime drama that is equal parts 1970s nihilism and 2000s alienation, delivered in a manner which is accessible but not opportunistic.
What makes Killing Them Softly so memorable, and so striking, is how cold it is. The film is incredibly brutal, containing multiple scenes of violence which are deeply and shockingly repulsive. Whether it's Ray Liotta being graphically beaten up by gangsters, or someone's head being blown open with a shotgun, the film is without any doubt a top-end 18 certificate. But what's more striking than the violence is how black it feels, drawing no quarter with any of its characters, or introducing any elements that offer any kind of happy ending or hope for the future. It makes Tyrannosaur feel like The Sound of Music, and that's no mean feat.
Dominik is very careful to ensure that none of the criminals depicted in the film come across as remotely likeable. None of them are crafty, charming, intelligent, or even lucky - they are all pathetic, desperate and insecure. The film paints a grim picture of American society, with pond life at the very top and very bottom of the social ladder, and Richard Jenkins' character being stuck in the middle, trying to understand how this could have happened and how to sort it all out.
It's hard to think of another film in recent times which has been so forthright and so determined to deconstruct the glamour and mythology of crime. While Ferrara gave us some form of redemption for the central character, the characters in Killing Them Softly are condemned to this grim, shadowy existence in which their money offers no comfort, let alone contentment. There is no attempt made to romanticise the drug culture, the gun culture, or whatever corporate structure has grown up in the crime world: we are staring deep into the abyss, and for once no light is getting in to spoil the view.
Further of evidence of this is displayed in the film's depiction of machismo. The characters are almost entirely male, with the only female characters being prostitutes, and the script contains lines of rampantly misogynistic dialogue to reinforce the male dominance in this world. And yet these lines and this character balance are not used to support the masculinity of the characters: it is used to demonstrate how feeble they are, and how their male pride ultimately comes to nothing. The title reflects the slow death of the characters, through decrepitude and despair; to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, they die not with a bang, but a whimper.
Running throughout Killing Them Softly is the idea that everything is a transaction. During their discussions in the parked car, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins argue about affording the air fare needed to bring James Gandolfini on board. Even for a hitman, Pitt is emotionally distant from the events around him: he knows full well that what he is doing may not fix things, but he is resigned to doing them regardless. In the final scene, which plays out over Obama's victory message, he berates Jenkins for trying to rip him off, ripping apart notions of community and society, and ending with the killer line: "In America, you're on your own. Now fucking pay me."
Pitt's performance as Jackie Cogan is both the icing on the cake and the audience's main reference point as they wander through this dark world. Even with his reputation for glamour, both on- and off-screen, Pitt comes across every bit as scuzzy and loathsome as his counterparts, with only a sense of distant cool really separating them. It's one of the best performances of his career, certainly on a par with his previous collaboration with Dominik on Jesse James. You might go so far as calling his character this generation's Jack Carter: like Michael Caine, you have an actor of great glamour and charisma transforming into the embodiment of ruthless and relentless cruelty.
Killing Them Softly is the best film of the year (so far) and proof of Andrew Dominik's status as one of the greatest directors of our time. The film is directed with ruthless efficiency, with Pitt's outstanding performance being matched perfectly to that of Richard Jenkins, all underscored by Greig Fraser's grim cinematography and Dominik's adept camerawork. It is both this generation's Get Carter and a stunning masterpiece in its own right. Above all, it's refreshing in just how dark it goes, being unforgiving, visceral and as black as obsidian.