Ashvegas movie review: Killing Them Softly


“Strumming my pain with the trigger…”
(The Weinstein Company)

Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:

In merely his third feature film, Andrew Dominik firmly establishes himself as an auteur with the sublime Killing Them Softly.  His fingerprints evident in each scene down to the sound design, he enlivens the worn genre of gangster films with an exhilarating sense of control.  Comprised of numerous juicy dialogue exchanges, given justice by actors who know what they’re doing, and tied together with bursts of extreme violence, the film is far from typical criminal fare.  Instead, the bullets come sparingly, but when they arrive, they do so with the precision of a master craftsman.

2012: the year of dog-napping
for small time crooks.
(The Weinstein Company)

A while back, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) knocked over his own protected poker game, then blabbed about it to some friends.  With another game days away, Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) figures if it gets held up, Markie will get blamed, and hires knuckleheads Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to do the looting.  The job a success, the trio lay low, but when Russell brags of their accomplishment to the connected Kenny Gill (Slaine), the higher-ups enlist Jackie (Brad Pitt, in top suave badass form) to tidy things up.

As the powers that be close in on the violating parties, Dominik wields a stunning level of command, the likes of which are rarely seen in film.  Manipulating each technical and dramatic element to maximum effect, the writer/director creates a complete cinematic experience.  For his omnipotent effort, the takeaways from Killing Them Softly aren’t merely good writing, acting, or camerawork (all of which are indeed excellent), but also sound design and sound editing, facets rarely evident in movies.  Seizing the opportunity, Dominik and his audio crew utilize each theater speaker, conducting them like a symphony as clinking rain and muffled songs augment the visual charms onscreen.  The effect is nearly sensory overload, but in Dominik’s hands, each sonic moment is a true work of art.

Liotta: the go-to guy
if you need someone roughed up.
(The Weinstein Company)

Seeing as mob life isn’t all about squeezing triggers, it’s only right that conversation be at the film’s forefront.   Often running long and meandering in topicality, these talky bits always return to the matter at hand, propelling the story forward with an unsettling menace.  While Jackie makes his rounds, discussing the ins and outs of the business with the necessary parties, and Frankie and Russell scramble in their respective numbskull manners, Dominik’s pinpoint dialogue keeps the tension high.  Whether meeting with middleman Driver (Richard Jenkins) in the latter’s Lexus to calmly discuss who needs whacking, or struggling to motivate Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hit man whose vices quickly compromise his workplace abilities, Jackie’s dealings are laced with tar-pit black humor and crackle with spirit.

“I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!”
(The Weinstein Company)

When weaponry does come into play, it’s given the royal treatment.  Not to be outdone by the chatter, Killing Them Softly’s centerpiece is a stylized sequence of breathtaking bullet-time beauty, an orchestra of brutality complete with cascades of glass shards accompanying the ammunition’s trajectories.  Other violent encounters are less poetic, though remarkable in their own ways.  One character’s blunt beatdown is cued to the crackle of hard precipitation, pelting all beneath it with an unexpected cruelty, just as the character takes a shower of fists to the body.  Another more traditional stakeout snuff quickly morphs into a Hitchcockian waiting game, the eventual firearm explosion more jarring than expected thanks to the sound department’s skill.  Such auterial handiwork is mesmerizing and rightfully brings about comparisons to Dominik’s gritty forefathers, namely Scorsese and Tarantino, from whom he generously cribs.  After the master class that is Killing Them Softly, however, these greats could stand to learn a thing or two from the talented Aussie.

Pitt and Gandolfini,
swapping Gore Verbinski stories.
(The Weinstein Company)

Set amidst the economic downturn of fall 2008 and the pending Presidential election, political speeches and commentary take on a prominent supporting role.  Grabbing characters’ attentions from televisions and radios, these economic overtones and then-Senator Obama’s calls for hope and unity both clash and fall powerfully in line with the film’s content.  More enthralling in what they suggest than what they actually say, the messages serve as would-be anchors in this dirty line of work, but are just as quickly tossed aside.  So it goes.  Rarely have rotten people been so much fun to be around.  Dominik gives criminals the mini-epic they deserve, and after his thoroughly constructed experience, it’s damn near impossible to leave the theater without a devilish grin.

Grade: A

Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.

Killing Them Softly is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.

For more film reviews, visit The Isolated Moviegoer.