“They tried to get her last night.”
“They? A wonderful word. And who are they?
They're the nameless ones who kill people.”
They're the nameless ones who kill people.”
-Kiss Me Deadly
“Everything is politics”
The easy reading of Killing Them Softly—the one it seems that every critic I’ve read seems to want to make—is that the film boldly and stupidly compares capitalism and crime in the most invasive and obvious way possible. Certainly, with a scene where Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins silently sit for a minute while driving to listen to now former President Bush explain the importance of the bailout, it might seems at times that writer-director Andrew Dominik is making simply a series 1-to-1 political comparisons: Brad is the economic stimulus package! The gamblers are the too cautious senate! America is a business built on violence!
Excuse me for not buying the text. Dominik is, after all, the director who gave us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a grand opus about the closing of the American West, its mythic symbols as portents of death. To assume that Dominik thought it would be a smart choice to reduce politics into blatant metaphors is to assume a lack of intelligence on the director, an easy job it seems for a number of critics all too excited to place themselves above Dominik. I mean if it’s so obviously a stupid idea, why do it?
So hear me out: the actual content of politics we see and here in Killing Them Softly is less important than their placement within the narrative in the first place and their delivery of content. Just watch that opening credit speech, as Obama’s speech can’t help but jarringly force itself onto the film proper. Or is it the other way around—has film become political, or the political become film?
Classic film noir is often defined as a genre that never could tackle politics on its surface. It was reduced to visual codes and systems, metaphors of hot coffee as signs of political and social trauma. All this made noir one of the most potent genres of its time, so much that every filmmaker now tries to rip off the genre, usually in a way that forgets its essential syntax. Killing Me Softly does not. In many ways, it is the political fulfillment of film noir. The speeches of bailouts and the promises of America are not just devices as metaphors, but metaphors as metaphors. The system is now inescapable. If anything, Dominik underused the tactic, but it pays off in the final scene where Pitt and Jenkins must acknowledged their own relationship to the political—it literally breaks its way into what was once the pure diegesis of the film. Even in the most barren and depraved society (Patricia Norris has created one of the ugliest worlds on screen since her work with David Lynch), every action cannot escape a political reading. This film isn’t asking us to compare the political to the crime world—movies have been doing that for decades—it’s asking us to ask what isn’t political these days? Pitt’s final speech in the film is less of a revelation than a cold hard joke. He invokes the most blatant of metaphors, because he can. In society, all rhetoric is reduced to politics.
Killing Them Softly also has a narrative on its own that it must tell—one that deals in hard strokes and barren bits, none of it too pretty. Having not seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle nor having read George V. Higgins’s Coogan’s Trade, I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I can speak to what we have on screen. Dominick, it seems, is interested in the opposite of Mamet, who always tells writers to get in and out of a scene as fast as you can. Consider a scene where Gandolfini and Pitt have a long conversation at a hotel restaurant. The scene lasts about ten minutes, where Gandolfini tells a long story about prison and his relationship to his wife. The actual exposition—the god damn point of the scene—is literally left for the last fifteen seconds. So the question is what do we gain from a scene like that? Besides just letting us indulge in an over-indulgent Gandolfini performance (he is truly the bloated beast of the capital monster, unaware of how much he has inhaled), Dominik reveals the insecurity, the risk, and just how much Pitt’s character is about listening. This is the opposite we see in those Pitt and Jenkins sequences, where all they talk is method and process, the annoying bureaucratic steps they must take to clean up this ugly mess. Instead, Gandolfini can never focus on what’s at stake. This kind of scene works mostly for Dominik (one earlier in the film with two low life criminals going in and out of consciousness, sadly, does not), as he turns our desire for a crime film inside out.
Add to that the film’s extremely aestheticized violence. Besides a clever tracking shot near the opening of the film, no one throws a punch or uses a bullet for almost forty minutes. And then we get a brutal, night-set beating, none of it too pretty. Dominik and his DP Grieg Fraiser (whose work here, on film no less, is simply stunning) makes it over-the-top brutal, but not in a way where we can disassociate from the violence in its comicality (see: Django Unchained). It is not easy to watch. Then again, I’m not sure why it needs to be so rough and bold. Killing Them Softly seems to be working a few different angles at once, and its violence, particularly in a slow motion bullet set to a 50s pop song (an ironic gesture that has lost its irony), is the one that actually feels a little too calculated, much more than its political discourse. The scenes hit hard, but what do they translate in terms of this world besides utter brutality? The problem is that it too much feels like aesthetics for aesthetics sake. This is in fact the much more slippery metaphor in Dominik’s film, which is perhaps why the standout sequence is the robbery, which is so precisely and intimately shot with such sustained tension that is the type you really want taught in film school. It’s slow, merciless, and edited on its own unique rhythm, and creates a feeling of horror without a single bullet going out.
One last note: Scoot McNairy? Where did this man come from? Has any other actor so literally embodied a rat? His voice and jitters are a delight to watch, moving in a way that traps us in his predicament. In the film’s best sequence, Pitt confronts McNairy at a bar. We’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but not with Pitt’s in-and-out, almost mechanical persona and McNairy’s tortured soul. You can feel McNairy is ready to jump out of his body at any moment, leaving a dead carcass behind. He’s the soul of this film—a shit man doing shit business in a shit world.
Love to hear feedback in the comments on any of my thoughts.