“I like to kill them softly, from a distance. Not close enough for feelings”
Andrew Dominik’s third feature film Killing Them Softly is a loose adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and follows enforcer Jackie Cogan who is hired to restore order after a robbery at a mob-protected card game causes the local criminal economy to collapse. For his neo-noir crime thriller Dominik reunites with Brad Pitt and frees himself from the shackles of popular cinema convention to deliver a visceral piece of Americana.
Dominik uses the original novel as the foundation for his story, but transports it to a modern-day New Orleans against the backdrop of the 2008 election campaign. Using film as a medium for political allegory and socio-economic commentary is certainly not new, but few mainstream releases tackle it with as much severity and little subtlety.
The Australian filmmaker presents his film in a deliberately jarring manner with an array of jump cuts, overt visual clues and point-blank dialogue explicitly punctuated with political terminology and references. Dominik courageously uses a gritty gangster story as a metaphor for the financial crisis, but executes it poorly. With little faith in his audience to draw comparisons of their own, he enforces the parallels he wants to make with constant, intrusive reminders of current politics; billboards, television interviews and sound bites from speeches. Yet, Killing Them Softly is not a direct attack on any particular politician or administration, more a systematic condemnation of contemporary American politics as a whole. Unfortunately, such heavy handed management, no matter how intentional, never permits a satisfying experience or natural story.
Both of Dominik’s previous films, Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, validate his ability for crafting gritty, slow-burning narratives abruptly roused by astonishing stylistic flourishes. Criminally the compelling narrative and accomplished performances are buried beneath the layers of allegory and metaphor that make up the director’s blatant agenda, from which it rarely emerges.
The dialogue-driven narrative provides few opportunities for Dominik to express his artistic capabilities. The glorious tension exhibited within the opening robbery, the distressing violence and sublime sound design as one mobster is savagely beaten and the highly-stylised sequence where Cogan commits his first assassination; these rare, magnificently crafted moments are also the most memorable.
Killing Them Softly is a confusion of two films, each individually admirable, but so far removed from each other that they never converge. Hero-less and devoid of all sentimentality, Dominik’s third film will fail to please the majority of audiences, but the stellar performances and directorial flourishes make it inherently watchable.