Not every crime film has to appear the same. There can be grace and beauty, even in death, and time and time again, director Andrew Dominik proves this in Killing Them Softly. Raw, thought-provoking in unexpected ways, and supremely well acted, this is a crime film that stands out from the crowd for good and bad reasons. There’s a filthiness to one character in particular who you actually root to get knocked off. In fact, he gives such a disgusting and down-and-out performance you are left with a bad taste in your mouth.
The amount of perspiration he seems to conjure up compared to everyone else is mesmerizing and loathsome at the same time. That man isn’t played by Brad Pitt, though, who instead stars as a hitman for hire named Jackie who is tasked with finding who knocked over a local poker game. Instead, Pitt is as smooth as ever, yet has that killer in the shadows feel that he can bring out in a moments notice. He’s often the lone point of levity, and often the coolest head in the room.
Dominik is familiar with Pitt, having employed him previously to play Jesse James in the poetic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That film had a sense of verbal promiscuity, where it would go off on tangents that filled you in on what a character is all about but could feel off-putting to those raised on films that only give you the relevant points to the story at hand. Dominik is back with that same somewhat disorienting device, like when we first meet Mickey (James Gandolfini) and he rants about how his wife did or didn’t leave him after serving time in jail. Instantly, within a few minutes, we are gives clues to the man’s background without it ever feeling like exposition. We also witness how his life is spiraling as he guzzles martinis and beers at a pace that even makes Jackie nervous.
There’s a lesson somewhere in here, but Dominik really leaves it up to you. The effect can be disorientating, or it can feel like a revelation. However, the film really revolves around three guys that think they can game the system in their favor. Despite the leader’s initial instincts, he hires the crummy druggie and it of course eventually goes wrong. But the trick isn’t in watching the pins being set up and watching them fall. Instead, it’s about the mistakes that so many of these people make that they should know not to make. Potential monetary windfalls can make people act irrationally. However, unlike in Wall Street or in most open markets, here the result is likely a messy death. You don’t steal from gangsters and hustlers and expect to come out clean.
Back to the grittiness, though, Dominik’s world is full of throwaway periphery that helps flesh out the characters and surrounding. As we follow one character walking into a bar, we see in the background a corner thug yelling at someone in the middle of the street. Right before our character enters the bar, we see someone run into frame and shoot the loud street thug several times then take off. Our character never bats an eye.
Life is violent in the streets, and it’s played by a different set of rules. Jackie tries to explain this a few times in hilarious exchanges with Richard Jenkins’ character, but it never seems to take hold all that well. As for the beauty, it can be seen in an assassination that slows down the gunshots so we can see a gun being fired in the rain, with each spent casing being ejected before another another bullet enters the chamber. A pummeling draws gushing blood within the first two hits and we can hear the crack as each blow lands.
This isn’t a clean, happy film of people getting their due. There’s just as much beauty in the justice as there is in the punishment. We often love to see a story that fits what we expect, but Dominik has shrugged the genre conventions here yet remained close enough to not alienate those that can cope with his changes and tweaks. There are a few loose ends, but it’s hard to fault someone for simply not wanting to waste their breath on small trivial things when he can do so much more with the same time span. Killing Them Softly is jarringly violent even considering its subject matter, vulgar enough to shock those that have heard foul language before, and yet charmingly executed and delivered. This is one that will stick with you.