Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is not so much a film as it is an endurance test. How much cynicism, violence, and unpleasant characterization can you take in one sitting? Dominik isn’t interested in entertaining, nor does he seem particularly intent on provoking. He’s constructed a film designed to wear the viewer down, and down, and down a little further still, all in service of a dark and bitter core message we are meant to feel instead of interpret. The film succeeds quite well in these creative goals; I just happen to find no real value in this approach, and feel there is very little to gain from the experience.
The film is allegory at its most cold and oppressive, telling a story that only has meaning through metaphor, and that therefore gets its single thematic point across as soon as the plot comes into focus. The main action revolves around a criminal enforcer (Brad Pitt) investigating the heist of a mob poker game, working through the bureaucracy of organized crime to kill the guilty parties and restore confidence to other criminal backers. Sound familiar? That’s because the plot is modeled on the American financial crisis of 2008, where government officials scrambled to clean up a mess caused in part by Wall Street gambling and restore confidence in investors around the world. The film is set during late 2008, and from the opening moments, we continually hear snippets of speeches by President Bush, then-Senator Obama, and Representative McCain.
The message is impossible to miss: Our government and financial system is akin to criminal conspiracy, and operates in much the same way. And once the crux of Dominik’s metaphor becomes clear, one understands the entire movie. There’s nothing more to it than that, and in lieu of greater thematic exploration, Dominik focuses on hammering home the cynicism of his thesis, presenting us with nothing but despicable characters doing despicable things to reach despicable ends.
I don’t necessarily disagree with anything the film has to say – capitalism is indeed a dirty, destructive enterprise at times, and there’s no denying that much of politics is an elaborate shell game designed to hide that fact – but I found the blunt, overwhelmingly bleak approach uninvolving and, for the most part, off-putting. Many filmmakers have, of course, told great and effective stories through similarly dark prisms, but Killing Them Softly never delves deeper beyond its angry, surface-level cynicism, and while I certainly walked away with a full understanding for how Dominik feels about modern politics and economics, I cannot say my own views were challenged, impacted, or augmented in any meaningful way.
What’s worse, the domineering nature of the allegory makes it quite difficult to enjoy the many things the film does well. Dominik writes wonderful dialogue, prose that crackles with life, energy, and personality, and it is an absolute joy to watch the tremendously talented ensemble –which, in addition to Pitt, includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Scoot McNairy, all doing wonderful work – recite such excellent wordplay. And yet because the film’s primary purpose is to express outrage and disgust, we must never be allowed to like, even for a second, any of these unsavory characters. Pitt gets by on his inherent charm, I suppose, but otherwise, these are all awful, violent, deeply misogynistic monsters difficult to stomach for prolonged periods of time.
Similarly, while the film features strong and inventive cinematography, the most impressive moment of visual ingenuity is a slow-motion depiction of a murder, an act of savagery between characters I am not invested in that carries little thematic significance. As with the dialogue and performances, I should be thrilled by the quality of craft, but am instead worn down by the stark, brutal simplicity of the material.
Still, this is not a film I can write off entirely. It is not only well made, but precisely made; good or ill, Killing Them Softly seems to be exactly the film Dominik set out to make, and though I found it almost completely alienating, I am sure it will resonate with some. The decision to give it a wide release on its opening weekend is baffling – there is absolutely no way the film will have any mainstream appeal – but if it sounds appealing to you, Killing Them Softly may be worth a look. Otherwise? There are plenty of other, better films playing at the multiplex this weekend.