You can smell the auteur all over director Andrew Dominik, even though we are only three features into his official canon—and I’ve only seen the last two. But when you realize my initiation was his searing 2007 western meditation, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, you might be able to forgive my hyperbole. Years from now when that film is popping up consistently on lists of forgotten film masterpieces(some will argue that has already begun), maybe my auteur label will have more gravity. That is if Dominik is ever financed to direct another of his unique visions. Because “Killing Them Softly”, like “Jesse James” 5 years before it, barely made a freaking dime. And not only do both films star Brad Pitt, but “Softly” has a cast that includes Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini. So, what happened? Especially considering that, unlike the “Jesse James” behemoth-like 2 hour and 40-minute run time, “Killing Them Softly” clocks in at a trim 97 minutes—including the end credits. It seemed to have all the makings of a hit when it officially opened in the late fall of 2012, but it never caught fire at the box office. It’s decidedly very European in tone(although Mr. Dominik hails from New Zealand), which may partially explain the American ennui. I’ll also point out the meditative, unconventional denouement. You can almost hear the mass audience collective groan after that—even if your viewing “Softly” in your living room.
Markie Trattman(a bloated and effective Mr. Liotta)is a beloved low-level crook who operates an illegal poker ring in the New Orleans area. He then has an idea to stealthily plan an inside job and have two men rob his own game. Markie is suspected by(and even takes a beating from)the hitman named Dillon(the prolific Sam Shepard). But Markie is eventually given a pass, simply because everyone likes him so much. Trattman later even off-handedly admits that he set up the heist himself, but no one bats an eye! Past is past, what’s done is done—and everyone really loves Markie. But, as Daffy Duck would comply—you can only do it once. Enter Johnny “Squirrel” Amato(“The Sopranos” Vincent Curatola), a small-time thief and dry-cleaning business proprietor. Johnny enlists Frankie(a sympathetic Scoot McNairy), who in turn partners with heroin addict Russell(the eclectic Ben Mendelsohn), to knock over the same poker ring a second time—on the premise that Markie will again be suspected. And like him or not, they’ll never let him get away with it twice. And it all goes according to plan—until someone starts bragging to the wrong guy. And then the slick killer, Jackie(a marvelous Mr. Pitt), mob emissary Driver(the always solid Mr. Jenkins)and New York enforcer Mickey(superb work from Mr. Gandolfini)are brought in to “rectify” the situation. Even if a certain innocent has to be sacrificed as an example.
“Killing Them Softly” has been growing on me steadily. As Walter Chaw likes to say—it looks great in the rearview. It displays a certain “Goodfellas”-esque seediness, while remaining distinctly its very own separate vision. It boasts a meticulous, sharp, tight edit from Brian A. Kates and John Paul Horstmann. And the slow-motion offing of a major character through the windshield and windows of his car is one of the most bravura camerawork showcases of last year. Come to think of it, all of the bloodletting in “Killing Them Softly” involves car windows. Don’t mistake that for a coincidence. If it’s accused of hitting the metaphors of the recent U.S. financial crisis too hard, I guess it would be difficult to enter a “not guilty” plea in that respect. If anything, that theme was admittedly handled more adroitly in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” in 2012. Also, there is a brief interlude involving the kidnapping of dogs that will give you enough pause to wonder if you queued “Seven Psychopaths” again by mistke(it happened to me anyway!). Need two more reasons to see it? It just missed Walter Chaw’s Top Ten from last year, coming in at #11. Plus, that hack Rex Reed from the New York Observer found it filthy and pointless. As usual, his pans should be considered sterling recommendations. Grade: A-