The gangster film has always been understood as a popular genre. While films like The Godfather and Goodfellas have freely commented on the cruel realities of capitalism, they did so in the context of pulpy, enthralling crime sagas. Andrew Dominik’s masterful—yet stubbornly unpleasant—Killing Them Softly offers sequences of nail-biting suspense and thrilling stylization, but its overall approach runs so counter to expectations that it seems destined to frustrate most of its audience. But for adventurous viewers, those open to jarring deviations from the comforts of genre, this adaptation of George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade may prove to be a remarkably fresh and uncompromising anomaly, one infected with an anger that is almost unheard of in a Hollywood star vehicle.
After learning that Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) casually bragged about robbing his own card game, two petty criminals decide to rob another one of his games, assuming that Markie will be blamed, allowing them to escape unharmed. However, it doesn’t take long to put the pieces together, leaving Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)—a boundary-sensitive hit man—to dispose of the perpetrators. Troubled by the emotions involved in murder, Jackie has devised methods of keeping his distance. He also brings in Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help with the job, as he already has a personal relationship with one of the targets. Various complications ensue, forcing Cogan to take unusual steps to collect his latest paycheque.
Whatever its shortcomings, Killing Them Softly appears to be an exacting realization of writer-director Andrew Dominik’s intentions. Where it starts to get more complicated is in the peculiarity of those intentions. Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has referred to this film as a breezy “bubblegum” crime film, but this is far from a diverting escapist experience. In addition to Dominik’s practice of stifling narrative expectations—several key plot threads are abandoned, evolving into digressive studies in criminal behaviour—he pursues extremely unconventional rhythms in his pacing and overloads the viewer with brutal violence and unpleasant characters. Unlike the charming gangsters we’ve come to know in more conventionally entertaining crime films, the characters in Killing Them Softly are authentically grimy, drug-fuelled thugs willing to do anything for a buck. Echoing Dominik’s despairing vision of the United States, these characters have no apparent concerns outside their own financial self-interest.
The film’s unpleasantness is made even more overwhelming by Dominik’s unrelenting mastery of film craft, maximizing feelings of danger and discomfort at every turn. Right from the vaguely avant-garde opening credits, he makes it clear that this is going to be a full body filmgoing experience. Don’t expect to sit back passively, waiting for the next big moment to come, as Dominik immerses the audience in a constant sense of jeopardy, making us feel every punch, bullet, and drug injection, all coated in a smothering sense of dread. The grim reality of this approach privileges truth over pleasure, though it could also be argued that there’s a perverse aesthetic thrill in Dominik’s approach, one that finds cinematic excitement in his refreshingly grim, nihilistic worldview.
This may all sound like the kind of experience most filmgoers would rather not endure—and it is. However, this is an unmistakably bold, original film that dares to offer harsh reality, where most of its peers prefer false charm. Impeccably crafted and memorably acted (Pitt, Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins deliver particularly strong performances), Killing Them Softly simultaneously exposes the myths of crime cinema and American politics. Dominik’s sensibility could afford to be more varied and less punishing, but the film's most memorable moments have an enigmatic force that sticks with you long after its much-discussed political overtones have been forgotten.