How Killing Them Softly Reinvigorates The Crime Genre

Andrew Dominik is no mere crime director, just as his pictures Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and his latest, Killing Them Softly, are no mere crime dramas. His films act as treatises on the fallibility of human nature. They deconstruct myths and present us with the grimy reality of gangster life. Even the undisputed greats of the genre, The Godfathers and the Goodfellas, often portray gangsterism in a slickly cinematic and grand, sometimes operatic fashion. Crime in Dominik€™s world is clumsy, low-key, unpredictable. But where Jesse James is also a western and Chopper is a bio-pic, Killing Them Softly feels like Dominik€™s first fully-fledged gangster movie, and it€™s one that should shake up the genre as it stands. In his first two features, Dominik sought to mesh the subjects of criminality and celebrity. Chopper told the story of a man using crime to achieve infamy, while Jesse James was about an outlaw struggling to come to terms with his own legend. In Killing Them Softly, criminals are ordinary. They€™re not the glamorous, tightly-nit mobsters that we€™re used to watching onscreen, with their own codes, language and way of life, but people just like you and me. Jackie Cogan is a cold opportunist looking out for number one. Frankie is a fidgety chancer down on his luck. Russell is a junkie always cooking up harebrained schemes. Mickey is a depressed alcoholic with a penchant for prostitutes. Instead of the gangster movie staple of highlighting tribe characteristics (think the shared style and vocabulary of the Bonnano crime syndicate in Donnie Brasco), Dominik emphasises his characters€™ individuality. Refusing to make his players clear-cut heroes and villains, Dominik instead shapes his crims into believable human beings. Plans go awry, and always because of basic human error: we know that Frankie and Russell€™s involvement in a heist at a mob poker game must be kept top secret from the likes of Jackie Cogan, or Cogan will track down and kill everyone tied to the robbery. Jackie finds out because Russell mentions the robbery in passing conversation with a friend. In Killing Them Softly, we witness things other mob movies often neglect to show us. Prior to the gruesome €˜hits€™ are the business-like negotiations, as monetary matters and the finer details are discussed at length by Cogan and Richard Jenkins€™ nameless, corrupt councilman. There are the plans that never come to fruition at all; James Gandolfini€™s Mickey is set up as a major character, the ruthless assassin brought in to €˜whack€™ perpetrators of the poker robbery. But when Mickey arrives in town, he proceeds to repeatedly delay the job, doing nothing but drink copious levels of alcohol and sleep with hookers before disappearing from the film entirely. Mickey drives the plot in no shape or form, acting instead as a stumbling block to the story before being removed from it altogether. Most directors would just excise Mickey from the script, but Dominik is interested in showing us what gangster films tend to leave out. Most of the running time, in fact, is dedicated to the trivial conversation of blue-collar criminals in-between jobs. This doesn€™t just seek to put Killing Them Softly in Pulp Fiction €œRoyale with cheese€ territory, but rather heightens the realism and our feelings of relatability. We start to see these characters like ourselves. Then they get killed, and it€™s absolutely devastating. Dominik€™s film doesn€™t defy every expectation of the crime drama. As Scorsese made it such a genre staple, it would seem rude not to include at least one scene where someone is coolly gunned down in slo-mo, pop/rock music playing on the soundtrack. Here, though, Dominik makes this genre fixture oddly unsettling. We see a key character shot through his car window in hypnotic slow motion to some €˜60s pop, and it€™s all very Goodfellas. Then the car he was driving slowly crawls out before oncoming traffic. His vehicle is hit again and again in that super slo-mo, the body thrown around like a ragdoll, long since dead. Dominik renders murder repellent, unexciting, and does in this one scene for violence what Michael Haneke managed over two whole versions of Funny Games. Killing Them Softly also wants to make a comment on the wider context of the world right now. Like Chopper and Jesse James, Dominik€™s third is about more than just crime. It€™s about ideals and politics. It€™s a movie about America itself. The film€™s location is nowhere in particular, but the USA in general. It€™s set in a grey, dead city full of decaying architecture against the backdrop of the 2008 elections. Messages of hope from McCain and Obama echo out of TV sets and radios, the presidential hopefuls making promises that we know €“ with foresight €“ will amount to nothing. Killing Them Softly is a dark, serious film (though there are flickers of brilliant black comedy) that wants to get you passionate about the state of things NOW. As well as being a film that de-glamorises a genre so often glamorised, Killing Them Softly looks past its sad-sack minor crooks, holds a mirror up to our world today and forces us to take a look at the real villains. It can be no accident that Jenkins€™ duplicitous, prosperous government suit €“ ruling the world from the comfort of his Mercedes €“ is the real big bad of the whole piece. All the realism and all the allegory on show run the risk of draining any fun from Killing Them Softly. Instead, Andrew Dominik gives the gangster genre a new lease of life. With his third project and first gangster movie proper, Dominik ignores and sometimes parodies genre conventions, somehow leaving us with a truth (or as close as we can get) that€™s infinitely more exciting. It feels like gangster films can€™t aim to be ultra-cool entertainment after this and, if they do, they€™d be taking a step backwards. They€™d be dinosaurs. Killing Them Softly stands out because it€™s something completely new in its field, with a freshness a result of its intelligence and its defiant originality. How many other gangster films do you see that, instead of a climactic shootout, end with a cold-blooded killer emerging victorious to make a stinging comment on the American dream?
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Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the dashing young princes. Follow Brogan on twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion: @BroganMorris1