Opening on glitchy audio samples of Barack Obama's campaign-trail speechifying on economic reform (sort of a remix of The Godfather's ironically tone-setting "I believe in America"), Killing Them Softly orients itself squarely around the 2008 U.S. presidential election and the economic crisis its combatants found themselves clumsily responding to. Via snatches of overheard radio dialogue and C-Span transmissions pouring out into dingy bars, the film works this stuff in with about as much subtlety as a revolver's hammer hitting its firing pin in super-slow motion.
The election, the bailout, the post-Katrina New Orleans setting, the canned music cues, the "America is a business!" dialogue—it's all so patent and on the nose that it seems a bit silly to regard it as "subtext" in any meaningful way. Granted, Killing Them Softly can seem terribly heavy-handed, drafting out infantile, point-A-to-point-B links between the cast of alternatingly bungling, hard-nosed, reckless, eerily pragmatic, and flat-out stingy mobsters that make up writer-director Andrew Dominik's loosely sketched criminal underworld. But this thudding obviousness seems to reasonably proceed from Dominik's previous project, 2007's superb The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford—not so much a revisionist western as it is a restorative one, imbuing the oft-told story of James's downfall with a mythic reverence indebted to the genre's classicist high-water marks.
Like Assassination of Jesse James, Killing Them Softly draws its potency from lore. The difference is chiefly one of proximity. Where it's easier to reimagine the story of James precisely because it's so well worn (in the climax of the earlier film, Brad Pitt's James ceremoniously rises to adjust a painting on the wall, as if he's preternaturally acquainted with his own legend), approaching the America of four or five years ago with the same grandiose impressionism seems like a thornier proposition. The iconography of the era has yet to settle, the fable and folklore of the period yet to be recorded, let alone revised. And yet Dominik brazenly imagines the period in its hefty historicity, in its resounding mythic-ness.
It's a bolder—and maybe even more admirable—undertaking than Assassination of Jesse James, and Dominik doesn't quite pull it off. Killing Them Softly's main problems are structural, from the too-late arrival of Pitt's hired killer (rolling into the film, to the overly prophetic tune of Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around"), to the superfluity of James Gandolfini's hard-drinking killer (who coasts through his two scenes on the wafting fumes of his Tony Soprano persona), to Pitt literally saying the words "kill them softly." But none of this entirely undercuts the strength of Dominik's effort.
If all the bulky, state-of-the-nation themes clunk, it may be because they're intended not as broad allegories, but as load-bearing leitmotifs, devised to give the film historic-mythical texture, instead of meaningful resonance. And in places, Killing Them Softly is believably up to more than just inelegantly yoking American capitalism to organized crime. The film's moral landscape seems more directly tied to the conditions of its period, with its basic setup—two guys robbing a poker game in order to implicate the guy who runs it (Ray Liotta) and previously knocked it over himself—seems like a tighter, more direct allegory for the subprime mortgage crisis (fixers betting against their own game being rightfully ripped off). Even a late-game negotiation between Pitt's hitman and his mob liaison (Richard Jenkins) feels like a straight reference to credit swaps, imbuing Killing Them Softly's broader, crime-as-capitalism bluster with a welcome particularity.
As something of an outsider, the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised Dominik's perspective on America seems to proceed more directly from a magnified sense of it as an outsized, mythic entity, not America but "America." Seeing what's more or less our present moment rendered with such imposing grandiosity—and even the suggestion that George W. Bush's mumbling about bailouts and America's financial resolve may one day be regarded as capital-I important moments in America's own self-inflated mythology—may scan as aggrandizing, even a bit alienating. But it's by and large compelling to savor the degree to which Dominik seems to believe in "America."
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Another conceivable knock against Andrew Dominik's film is its muddy color palette. Even Assassination of Jesse James doubters were forced to acknowledge that, as shot by Roger Deakins, it looked terrific. Killing Them Softly is a decidedly muddier affair, but all of cinematographer Greg Fraser's grays and browns are transferred nicely to disc, with many of the film's more ostentatious passages—like a head shattering through a windshield in super-slow-motion—preserved in their crisp stylishness. The soundtrack is comparably clean, with all those snatches of C-Span dialogue fading in and out to underscore (or just underline) the on-screen action.
Effectively nothing. There's no commentary track, and an EPK-style making-of feature is of zero interest, beyond hearing James Gandolfini exaggeratedly pronounce the word "auteur." Some deleted scenes flesh out a subplot rather judiciously excised from the final cut, which functions because of its leanness.
This slight package does Killing Them Softly no real favors. But the film itself may prove enduringly fascinating, if only in its function as an arch object of its era.