I needn’t tell you that it’s been a presidential year. Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” Barack Obama’s spectral presence in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Obama’s voice is heard intermittently and even frames the action in “Killing Them Softly,” which I saw press-screened on Election Day. Still, set during the 2008 campaign, Andrew Dominik’s exceedingly ambitious gangland thriller even more emphatically features the words of then-president George W. Bush. Indeed, “Killing Them Softly” might be considered the last Bush movie; Dominik uses the 2008 campaign and the unfolding economic crisis as a running commentary on a downbeat tale of lower underworld chicanery.
A foredoomed lowlife creep strides, or staggers, through a trashed landscape of urban desolation to the sounds of Obama’s Democratic Convention acceptance speech: “What is the American promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will” so long as we “treat each other with dignity and respect!” Yeah, right. Based on a George V. Higgins novel, the movie is ostensibly set in cut-throat Boston (complete with Southie accents) but the location is actually (and unmistakably) New Orleans, American cinema’s post-apocalyptic Bushland, whether the dank hell of Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” remake or the crazy paradise of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Killing Them Softly” unfolds in a depressed zone where even the hit men are taking an economic hit. A crack-brained pair of skeezy punks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a gambling game run by dubious smoothy Ray Liotta — it’s harebrained scheme, executed even as a televised George Bush informs the American people that their economy is in free-fall, with dire implications for everyone in the zone, not least because the corporate overlords call in Brad Pitt’s low-keyed death-angel professional assassin to clear the playing field.
There’s no shortage of violence but the brutal set pieces are interspersed with a flavorsome series of one-on-one palooka chats. Headed by his Coolness, the star of Dominik’s 2007 “Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford,” the cast is terrific. Richard Jenkins is appropriately harried as Pitt’s corporate connection; James Gandolfini vastly enjoys himself as a colleague hit-man on an expense account. Liotta all but steals the movie as a hapless operator whose brain is a battleground between craft and stupidity. Pitt, mystically attuned to every vibration in this fallen world, gets to riposte to the ecstatic Election Night ‘08 chants of “Yes we can” with a cynical monologue on the eternal nature of America’s dog-eat-dog economy. “I’m American. In America you’re on your own. America is business — now fucking pay me!” (True enough, although less than ten hours after I saw the movie, US voters demonstrated an impressive amount of can-do.)
Nothing if not artistic, Dominick is pleased to use flashy effects and ostentatious music whenever possible — working the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” into a fabulously stupefied exchange between the two smacked out criminals or blatantly lifting from David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” by scoring a slow-motion, blood-soaked, glass-shattering drive-by shooting to “Love Letters Straight from Your Heart.” (Credit cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also shot “Zero Dark Thirty,” for the movie’s visual verve.) In short, “Killing Them Softly” is obvious but effective.
With two previous, impressively whacked-out features, the stridently absurdist criminal bio-pic “Chopper” and the superbly eccentric “Jesse James,” Dominick seems to be positioning himself as the heir to Michael Mann (and Walter Hill, not to mention the John Boorman of “Point Blank”) in the making of arty genre flicks. The allegory is over insistent, the movie is overwrought and Dominick is undoubtedly a showboat. Still, I gotta admit, I liked the show.
Images: Weinstein Company