Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Killing Them Affordably

     I've seen a lot of comparisons drawn between Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Andrew Dominick's Killing Them Softly this year, and for good reason.  Of all the films I've seen so far this year, these are the two that deal most directly with the financial state of Western civilization at present and the effect that it has upon the psyches and philosophies of the citizenry.  Unlike Nolan's film, this one doesn't really try to argue the merits of any possible solutions to these conditions or alterations that could be made to the structure of our society to treat the disease behind the symptoms.  No, Killing Them Softly is a film about survival of the fittest within the conditions and society that we have.  It paints a portrait of an America in which there are wolves who accept the way things are and learn to thrive within their circumstances, and sheep who foolishly gorge themselves on idealistic dreams of change, leaving them a more drowsy and vulnerable mob.
     I am a little embarrassed to admit that I have not seen either of writer/director Dominick's previous efforts, especially The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford.  I find this first exposure very promising.  He obviously brings out the best in his actors, as I'll expand upon shortly.  His writing style aims for innovation and depth as well as plot and character development.  One of his most interesting little flourishes in this film is the integration of sound bites from the 2008 election cycle.  The results of this approach were mixed.  Sometimes the way in which the footage interwove with the dialogue enhanced the story, sometimes it came across as being a little heavy handed.
     As I said before, this movie features some great performances. Chief among them is Brad Pitt's turn as top hit man Jackie.  I have been a fan of Pitt's since he was an under rated pretty boy, but he has really begun to realize his potential in the last few years.  The subtlety and maturity that he evinced in last year's Moneyball carries over successfully here, in a role that could so easily have gone over the top.  Jackie, however, is a smart wolf, who isn't about being showy.  He prefers "killing them softly.  From a distance."  He is all business, and his calm confidence is far more sinister and intimidating than a more demonstrative interpretation of the character could have ever been.  His final monologue here belongs in any montage of the actor's greatest moments.
      James Gandolfini is having a strong year, and he certainly doesn't embarrass himself here, as a fellow hit man whose new economic realities have obliterated his focus and strength.  The role is not that different from what we saw the actor do in various seasons of The Sopranos, but no one plays the self doubting mobster better.
      Richard Jenkins is the sort of character actor who never gets the credit that he deserves.  This is because his delivery is so natural, his characters so fully realized that you never see him acting.  I hope someone gives him something showy and outside of his comfort zone so that he can once again get some awards attention.  His work here is dependably strong as always, and more than a little bit wry.
     The rest of the cast is no less impressive.  Scoot McNairy (who also appears in Argo and Promised Land) continues to have one of the best break out years going.  Ray Liotta proves that he still has a lot more to give when provided with an opportunity.  It was especially fun to watch Ben Mendelsohn (who played Animal Kingdom's obligatory bad ass Pope) playing the most ineffectual member of the core cast.
      Killing Them Softly could have been a strong awards contender in a weaker year for film.  It is not a masterpiece, but I believe it is an important step in the emergence of a potentially great film maker, and a great director/actor partnership between Dominick and Pitt.  It is also a thought provoking film, especially if you are not predatory by nature, nor content to be prey.  What can the common man do in a world where even hired killers have to adopt recession inspired price cuts?  4 1/2 of 5 stars.
Related articles:  The Dark Knight TranscendsI Think You "Argo"ing To Love It

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