Killing Them Softly
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of my all time favorite films in part because it is one of the most beautiful that I ave ever seen, but this, Aussie Andrew Dominik’s follow up, this is one of the ugliest. The opening sequence conveys this instantly to all the relevant senses; inter-cutting screeches from speeches with shots from a stuttering steadi-cam as it exits a tunnel into a tornado of trash; it’s like childbirth, but messier.
The film is set in New Orleans, arguably the most beautiful and the ugliest of all America’s cities and the way that Andrew uses it lends his film a post-apocalyptic feel; it is after all a city that all but went through one (and sadly I have seen in person many of the sights at which the film was shot, still as shattered as they are here). It’s not a natural disaster that he is depicting with this movie though, it’s a thoroughly man made one, the result of our species selfishness and sadly this is just as real as Katrina.
The story of Softly is ugly too, it has that same loose vignette structure that Jesse James did though instead of slowly building towards a crime this tale spreads out from one; it’s trickle down bloodshed. So although all of the posters show only Brad Pitt’s perfectly marketable face it is very much an ensemble drama; his character is actually the least interesting and one of the last introduced. This isn’t a time where you will be let down by the scenes that lack him though because just as the performances in Assassination predicted a number of now massive careers Softly shows the best sides of all the actors that it involves. Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins bring their Coen-taught clever delivery to scenes of brilliant banter, Gandolfini relives Tony’s emotional journey in the space of several scenes and soliloquies, Scoot McNary suggests why he has been hired to star in several of this years films and Ray Liotta reminisces on his role in Goodfellas but it is Ben Mendehlson who steals the show, giving his grittiest, scariest and most manic performance yet, which is saying something.
None of the characters are likable, in fact all of them are ugly inside and out (perhaps Pitt excluded despite some effort) and yet Dominik and cinematographer Greg Fraser still manage to make every shot of the film feel beautiful in a weird way. The desolate destruction of the Katrina city setting, the blotchy bloody skin of Ben Mendehlson, the focus so soft that every external light source shimmers like a mirage made up by these men stuck so thoroughly in the dark. Visually speaking the film is simply stunning, the way that these scenes are sewn together though is a little more troubling. A slo-mo murder that should be stunning simply comes across as kind of cheap and messy while an inspired stylization of showing a scene under the influence quickly becomes irritating (intentionally perhaps, but still). I think that they take things a little too far.
But to back up a little, ‘trickle down bloodshed’. I used that phrase intentionally because as much as this film reminds you of other great genre efforts its real inspiration is in the economy and that is just as much its central theme as is the evil of men. James made the Western into a treatise on American Celebrity and Softly does the same with the Gangster genre but shifts its gaze onto money. Just as the Western has always had elements of hero worship hidden inherently inside it Crime films have always been about abridging the American Dream, a rags to riches story with all the hard work removed, so this might not seem like much of a shift; but this newfound focus and fascination, the forced observation of the element perverts it, showing in full force the fallacies to be found within it.
Besides having the characters talk about their present cash grabs and crazy plans for the future the film does this by bluntly weaving Barack Obama’s ’08 election victory into its story; though weaving may be the wrong word given just how separate the two strands stay until the very final scene. TV’s blare news reports in every internal scene and whenever they’re outside the characters take silent car rides with the radio on, all so that we can be given these snippets of pundits and Presidents discussing the economic collapse. It makes the film feel more like a remix than an adaptation of the original source material, it’s not a cohesive whole but it’s obviously not meant to be.
The view that the film ultimately expresses on this issue is also a very ugly one, the script skewering not just Obama but Thomas Bloody Jefferson too for the predilection they both share for spouting unfairly utopic spiels that the rest of us can never quite live up too. Though it’s not really a partisan piece of filmmaking, it balances these surface jabs with some smart subtle ones like Pitt’s speech about how the face has to take the blame for any of their operations’s failures, why the public demands it and how the city’s local crime syndicate can never get anything done any more now that it is run by committee.
So Softly is a very American story scripted and shot by an Aussie – the western he made was weird for this reason too – but Andrew brings the best of our industries mindset to this movie and does it like no one here really manages too, he takes the uglyness and makes something both meaningful from it. Those looking for a simple crime movie will be both disappointed and possibly disgusted by this but if you are willing to follow the metaphor, which more than any character or narrative concept is at the film’s core, then you are in for a memorable experience. Many people won’t though and they will suffer for it, the film satisfying only in this singular way.
I’ve made enough references to Jesse James so I’ll stop that, but to me Softly felt very much like Chopper (Dominik’s first film) in that the cinematic cut is too short and feels slightly shallow because of that; I hear rumors though that an extra fourty minutes existed in the first cut and have hope that those could elevate this to similarly lofty grounds to those where I hold Assassination. That is the kind of potential that this film has but it’s not where it currently stands. Killing could have used a slightly softer touch, the sort that Dominik has employed elsewhere and more time could give it that but time is money and movies, like America, are a business so I can see why this version is the one we see. It’s ugly but it’s life, so see this movie, give it your money and see if we can’t make a positive change, prove Brad Pitt wrong.