The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Dazed and Confused: Killing Them Softly
I believe in “Intelligent Design”, which is to say I am somewhat a proponent of the Auteur Theory. (Holla, Andrew Sarris!) And when one becomes a semi-proponent of such a theory, they are often inclined to fall in love with the director as much as the work itself. Even if it’s only after one film, if one is so enamored by the precise style, the instantly recognize camera movements, even the name itself, Lord knows said cinephile will be in line for the next film by whatever director they’ve fallen in love with. Such was the case with Andrew Dominik, whose incredible film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford left me intoxicated. But what happens when that director, well, shall we say, seems to lose his mind in a bizarre mash-up of unclear ideas, hack-y visuality, and heavy handedness? Uh, well, you seem to get Dominik’s extremely disappointing Killing Them Softly, or, as I thought of it, I Have No Idea What I Want to Say or How to Say It.
In Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, follows a hit man (Brad Pitt), as he follows a couple of people who turned over a card game and made it look like another guy did it (said fellow played by Ray Liotta, which makes one wonder where he’s been all these years). Meanwhile, as Pitt’s hit man talks with various people in bars and cars about the approach, the reason, and the morality of the hits, the two fellows who committed the crime, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), try, seemingly half heartedly, to avoid the new price on their heads.
I do not believe I have ever watched a film that was so incredibly heavy handed and yet had no idea what it was saying or how to say it. Prior to the official release of the film in the United States, back when it prancing around Cannes and competing for the Palme d’Or, Dominik and his team, whoever they are, decided on a fairly overt Americana theme. This Americana theme, which was not, however, very present in the trailers for the film, seems to try to set up some sort of thematic arc or thesis for the film, but, just as the film itself, it seems to be only vaguely related to the film. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of some political figure on a TV or disembodied voice on the radio, whether it is McCain, Obama, or even W. Bush, talking about the economy. So, here lies the first problem: Less of a lesson or exercise in self reflexivity, Dominick goes for the heavy handedness outside of the direct dialogue (with the exception of certain scenes and certain pieces of dialogue), and feeds it to the audience in a very strange way. He feeds us his badly constructed lesson like a third party. A part of me would have preferred a Godardian lesson through the characters (knock on wood) as opposed to a fairly lazy attempt at chastising the American people. But, as often as these little sound bites from various political speeches featured on CNN and C-SPAN are there, and as often as they use buzz words like “Economy!” and “Fiscal” and “Community!” and “People!”, Dominik doesn’t really say anything about this. There are vague hints about why he’s trying to say something, with the hit man once or twice tip-toeing towards pontification about America being “a business” and the state of the country, but like an essay without an outline or any real thesis, the heavy handedness just seems loud, obnoxious, and vague. In a way, Killing Them Softly is like Andrew Dominik’s economically aimed, loosely neo-noir version of Dogville (whose thesis is far more clear cut, and yet excellently articulated cinematically). There’s some sort of attempt at juxtaposition in the film, with the gritty and slummy landscape of the gangsters (?) and the immaculate, expensive setting for the hit men. But, again, that try at visual cues does not translate well or effectively. There’s a hint of libertarianism, which left me sitting in the theater wondering, “Did Ayn Rand’s ghost possess Dominik or something?”
I was hoping that if the story was lackluster and all over the place, that at least the visual style would be interesting. And I guess you could call it interesting. Interesting in that it is a train wreck. While The Assassination of Jesse James’ style was refined, gorgeous, and purposefully shot (by Roger Deakins, no less), Killing Them Softly’s cinematography felt like the bastard child of J.J. Abrams, Julian Schnabel, and Guy Ritchie. Granted, some of the scenes do look good, but there is, by no means at all, any kind of consistency to the images on the screen. Nothing seems coherently placed together, its editing just as lackluster. Yes, the slow motion scene where Brad Pitt shoots someone looks pretty great (reminiscent of some of the finer scenes in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline pumped reboot of Sherlock Holmes), but… why? With Russell’s heroin addict, some of his scenes are straight out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, OH THE LENS FLARE! It’s ironic that so many of the scenes should be dictated less by any real action or purpose or even character and more by music and sound, because a short film I recently made (which you can watch here) had just that as its thesis: editing has changed, and when used poorly, can send a film into jeopardy. There’s no purpose to this visual style. There’s no reason. There’s no perspective. It’s just messy. The incoherent mess of a political allegory paired with the hodgepodge visual style… gosh, that’s two strikes.
Stylistically, regarding the plot, we hit another bump in the road. A lot of it, I assume intentionally, feels like a neo-noir. But that tonality of the film shifts, fluctuates, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a switch to something grittier, which under normal circumstances would not be inherently bad. The switch seems to be nodding to films like GoodFellas (which is sort of ironic), where the realism of the violence takes the center stage, disillusioning the audience of the romanticism they became familiar with two decades prior with The Godfather. That would be fine, you know, if it stayed that way. There’s another shift to something talkier, less noir and more “I don’t know what style I’m working with, so this is like an interstitial”. There’s some dark comedy in there for, like, two scenes. If the film had been sliced and diced into a series of vignettes, each short dedicated to its own kind of style and tone, maybe the film would work. But, as is, we get something confused. Excited, probably, but unable to know its own pace and something easily confused.
My last hope would be performances. Richard Jenkins, as a man (named Driver, for the record) who has long conversations with Pitt’s hit man, is good. Brad Pitt is fine. James Gandolfini is not very good. Ray Liotta is pretty good. Scoot McNairy is the only one who gives an enthralling performance, primarily within the first 15 minutes of the film. But no one really seems to bring their A-game. Pitt’s hit man, with his “inconsistent” moral views (he kills people, and yet criticizes the United States) make his character more pseudo-enigmatic rather than one of true depth. There’s no real good study of any of the characters, when this kind of film from this kind of director would definitely call for it. Its script, as well, is all over the place, with big chunks of dialogue and monologue fairly unnecessary and doing nothing to a) illustrate the character in a more detailed way or b) articulate and elaborate on whatever thesis it may or may not have. But, hey, Brad Pitt looks good in sunglasses.
Killing Them Softly is a confused film: stylistically, thematically, and in a narrative sense as well. With little rhyme or reason for many of the creative decisions made, little attempt to give meaty and interesting characters, and a severe allegory that inexplicably doesn’t have any idea how to articulate its thesis well, what is their left to say? What is there left to comment? I haven’t seen Chopper, but Dominik doesn’t really establish a precise and clear voice like he did with Jesse James. It looks like Dominik, maybe trying his hand at post-modernism, spent less time killing them softly and more time killing his audience haphazardly.