Killing Them Softly opens in the broken, outer city of New Orleans. The streets are cracked and desolate – everything feels utterly abandoned; a life without human presence. Small-time crooks Frankie and Johnny Amato discuss plans to stage a heist during a mob-protected poker game. Frankie sits next to his loudmouth partner, Russell – an Australian bum who likes talking dirty. The shaky cam swings from one face to the next, close-ups fill the screen, and the atmosphere is deadpan.
The director chooses to dismantle the viewer’s idea of a straightforward gangster flick piece by piece. Extraordinarily, ideas of power that viewers acquired upon viewing Goodfellas and The Godfather (after all, three primary members of the cast are James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Vincent Curatola, while Andrew Dominik has expressed his deep appreciation of the work of both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola) are shattered when the viewer is exposed to the tragic figure of Mickey – broken-hearted and washed-up, and the devastating and brutalizing beating of the trembling Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). In this film, everybody is alone – the tragedy comes from the fact that they all seem to know it a bit too well.
Much of the story is focused on Frankie — the lowlife thief who stages the poker game stick em’ up. Frankie comes close to being warmed to by the audience, but never quite manages. His struggle is swallowed by the general helplessness of the film. His partner, Russell, is subject to the same fate – though he leans closer to resignation than foolish hope. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) seems to be less consumed by hopelessness than the others, and because of this, appears to be the superior character – one might think back to the bar scene with Mickey. The mysterious lawyer whom Jackie confides in, has distanced himself and seems to be detached from the world portrayed in the film – you can sort of imagine him with his wife and kids, putting his feet up by the fire after work.
And then, Dominik’s dialogue enthrals the viewer – the conversation is perhaps what structures the atmosphere stirred up by the direction, the characters and the setting. The script is the encapsulation of a comedic grief – take, for example, the exchange that takes place pre-robbery, in the car, between Frankie and Russell. Ben Mendelsohn likes to talk about screwing dogs – and he lets Frankie (and the audience) in on a disturbing confession. Also, Jackie describes his philosophy on killing people from close range, “they cry, the plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing, I like to kill em’ softly. From a distance”.
The political side of the film worms its way into the viewer’s head, infused throughout – and focusing very much on period politics (and the 2008 Obama/McCain Campaign) through television and radio coverage playing behind bars, in cars and resonating from behind the picture. The question from the start seems to be “What do America’s leaders really know?” as people kill each other on the street for money while Obama talks about the nation’s unity. The film’s political critique of American society is one of capitalism and America as a “business” – Dominik states that he plays with the gangster genre because it is the only genre in cinema which makes being solely motivated by money acceptable.
On one level, Killing Them Softly is reminiscent of so many other gangster/crime films that preceded it. The plot itself is remarkably simple. What saves it from mediocrity is the fact that this simplicity allows the director all the space he needs to fiddle with it, play with character development, substantiate the dialogue, touch it up stylistically and turn it into the edgy, art-house feature it presents itself as.