Killing them Softly – Andrew Dominik reveals America is a business.

When I saw Killing Them Softly on the line up at the Sydney Film Festival I confess I did a wide berth. I was like “oh god – ANOTHER one?” about this film. I know there is nothing fresh in cinema (supposedly) and I know Lars von Triers Melancholia is about the death and drudgery of cinema today (supposedly) but this gangster blokey shoot-em-up post pulp fiction gangster crap has had its day – SURELY?

However, I had mellowed by the time it hit the main stream.  It opened in Sydney this week, so I hobbled along, expecting to be entertained by one or two witty lines, and squint at one or two horribly gruesome acts of gangster.  I can’t say I expected to be shocked by the “world of the underworld” because that all died with Mario Puzo’s revelations.  I did know deep down, for some reason, it would be a good film because often this genre is remarkably well made. There is something that goes on in the “boy-brain” of (usually) male directors that makes them want to produce a high quality work when they deal with low quality human creatures. The genre is absolutely due for a revamp (and I mean something a little more than making the “Unforgiven” of the genre) or at the very least, a dramatic change in its presentation, however it does seem to call forth the best in the men that make it happen, and that is what drew me to the film – finally.

And – predictably – this is another wonderful version of an absolutely overplayed genre.

Killing them Softly is an amusing (yes – it’s a black comedy) look at what happens to the “mob-world” when there is an economic downturn. Throughout the film news audio and footage of Bush and Obama carry the conversation about the economic downturn, placing the films historical context at around 2008 and over the next year or so.  The only other real indicator of this time frame are the faux vintage aviator sunglasses everyone is wearing (my how times have changed) and the perpetual moaning that no one has any money. A nice twist on the original gangster theme is “The Mob” is now a committee, and they are as cautious, indecisive and torpid as any other committee. Brad Pitt is absolutely wonderful as a hit man hired to do a “job” (taking out their lights – yes they actually say that) on a couple of hysterically hopeless petty crime hacks (again, wonderfully played by Ben Mendelsohn who retains his Aussie accent and character in another cute twist, and Scoot McNairy) who have been encouraged by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato, played by Vincent Curatola. The ensuing film is a play back of long witty pacey conversations interspersed with acts of violence.

Crime is the pedestrian shadow of the law-abiding suburbanite. These films are the fantasy of the law-abiding male who longs to be cool, respected and able to “take out” those who disrespect him. Of course no fantasy imagines themselves as the victim, only the super cool “baddie” who will axe everyone else. I can only guess guys (’cause they are famously ‘boys’ films) watch these films imagining themselves winning at such a scenario. This produces a nice subtext that is brought out by the constant play of the current events against the “gangster” world in the film. We now see the wall-street-tycoon as another version of a mobster, complete with their dumbness and their ruthlessness, (remember Jeremy Irons telling us “God knows I didn’t get where I am today by being smart.” in Margin Call) but also their complete engaging with a fantasy.  A belief that who they see themselves as, is who they really are.  In this way the film brings something a little fresh, if perhaps unintentional. With the addition of the jaded mobster Mickey, hilariously played by James Gandolfini and the on-screen death of local wiseguy Markie (Ray Liotta), another face we associate with the mobster, there is a glance at the death of that macho idealization of the “man” as the centre of the universe. Brad Pitt gives a rather hackneyed speech incredibly well (I’m not a Pitt fan, but when he’s good he’s really good) delivered at the end of the film claiming America is a business – nothing else. This speech, in this context, seems delivered against the fantasy macho male, whether he be today’s mobster or today’s tycoon.  These days it’s all a business. And you’d do well to leave hero-fantasy ideals at home.

For this final point, the film for me reaches a new height. It is saying something about the death of the genre, and the death of the mindset that makes and watches this genre. Why else would we see Ray Liotta die and James Gandolfini slide into a slovenly retirement filled with his own despair?  There is no replacement.  Their time has passed. These men are gone.

It’s a clever film, well written and subtle – of except for the parts that are not subtle.   🙂

Definitely one to catch.