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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 48
Satirically bleak Killing doesn't tread softly
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Satirically bleak Killing doesn't tread softly

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Now showing


Jackie (Brad Pitt) doesn't want to be in town. Problem is, Dillon's (Sam Shepard) sick, so when the syndicate's representative (Richard Jenkins) calls, it's up to Jackie to deal with the situation. Thing is, said situation is an annoying mess - Markie Trattman's (Ray Liotta) high-stakes mob-sanctioned poker game getting hit for a second time, leaving a bunch of nasty men with guns extremely upset.

Why annoying? The first time Markie's game was robbed he was the one behind it, Dillon giving him a good thrashing but the powers-that-be deciding to leave it at that, certain he'd never try to pull such a scam in the future. So when it's hit again the heads of the syndicate aren't entirely certain what to do. It's obvious Markie is being framed but at the same time, who's ever going to trust him again? And while it's important to find those responsible it's equally imperative to restore confidence in the game itself, so money can be made once again.

That's where Jackie comes in. He's the muscle, but he's also got a brain, and he knows what needs to be done to get the games going again and the steps required to find the men behind this harebrained robbery. His solutions won't be pretty and they won't come cheap, but they will, in the end, make those with the money happy again - which is the only thing that matters, even if a great deal of blood needs to be spilled to make it so.

DEEPER TRUTHS
Based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, writer and director Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, his follow-up to the magnetic and ethereal The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, isn't the Quentin-Tarantino-meets-Jules-Dassin crime thriller the ads and trailers make it appear. Instead, this movie is a hard-boiled, fitfully violent satire of modern America, an evisceration of consumerist culture and the financial maelstrom colored against a backdrop of wicked men doing evil things, all in a tireless crusade to get ahead any way they can.

Dominik introduces the trio of criminal masterminds (Vincent Curatola, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) behind the robbery in spirited vignettes, each revealing layers of inspiration and regret I found remarkable. There is pain here - real pathos, real disappointment. At the same time all of it is colored by dreams of youth and the promise of a better tomorrow that's easy to relate to, and while the decisions they make are not good ones in the context of the world they're all operating in, they do make some sort of tragic sense.

It's not just their dialogue, though, that cuts through the dark with acidic authenticity. The various conversations that Jackie has - with the syndicate's nameless representative, with a weary fellow assassin (played with raw, naked weariness by James Gandolfini), and with other nefarious individuals as they come into his murderous circle - all speak a searing truth that is both hysterical and frightening. What he sees as America, what he believes to be its true state in the here-and-now, what he thinks of discourse and of communication, his observations cut right to the bone. They take no prisoners and offer very little room for interpretation, and while it's impossible to agree with them all, they come from a place of truth that's frighteningly real.

Not that Dominik forgets about suspense or doesn't believe little things like tension are unimportant. The stakes rise throughout the picture and death does come calling, oftentimes for those who do not deserve it but must meet their end if the status quo is to be preserved. Jackie is the Angel of Death, speaking words that can deceive and inspire almost in equal measure but are clothed in a dangerous, bloodthirsty venom that takes no prisoners and offers no second chances.

PITCH-PERFECT PITT
Pitt is fantastic, his conversations with Jenkins and Gandolfini ripe with subtext dripping in multiple interpretations. Granted, he can play roles like this one in his sleep, always finding a certain sort of joy in portraying the seedier, if smarter, elements of the criminal underbelly, and from Snatch to Ocean's 11 to Inglourious Basterds to Fight Club, Jackie is just the type of character the actor was born to play.

The rest of the cast is up to the challenge of equaling him, McNairy and Mendelsohn particularly so. All grit, grim and ethereal underhanded purpose, they lap up Dominik's dialogue as if it were mother's milk, reveling in every syllable and going out of their way to make each moment uniquely its own. They rip at the underbelly of the piece with relish, each playing their respective part making sure the whole always moves with pulse-pounding finality to the only place it can come to.

NO HOLDS BARRED
The devastating element to all of this is that Dominik and company pull no punches and refuse to let the audience off the hook. We are Jackie, we are the minds behind the robbery, we are the ones who want to see the games back up and running as well as Markie, the sad, beleaguered soul who knows his single moment of idiocy so many years prior will probably lead to his death. We are the consumers, the takers, the ones who talk a solid game about the greater good but in the end are only truly interested in getting ahead for ourselves. It reveals truths we don't want to consider, let alone hear, Jackie's final blistering lines of dialogue making the sort of statement that sticks with the viewer long after the screen fades to black.

I imagine, because of all of this, that Killing Them Softly will have a hard time finding a large audience. Satires as coal-black as this one usually take time to resonate and develop a following, the truths they speak to hard for viewers to initially swallow as no one likes to think of themselves in the starkly staggering shades of grey depicted within. Even so, this is a movie that should stand the test of time as it speaks to the early days of this new millennium with a crystalline authenticity few films would attempt. Dominik has crafted something important and well worthy of celebration, and as darkly disturbing as much of it can be, it's nothing compared to the wreckage left behind when we leave our own moral code of ethics on the curbside in a dubious pursuit to come out on top.

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