It's impossible to make a crime movie anymore. Do it straight and it is direct-to-video dross. Put some English on the ball and you are accused of following Tarantino's post-linear narrative forms. Well, guess what, it's been 20 years since “Reservoir Dogs” (I know, I know) and the refracted lens is the new normal.
Andrew Dominik, the deliberate Australian filmmaker behind “Chopper” and “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” offers a view of the underworld that bubbles-up from within. A story that tick tocks between formula and formlessness, shifting between plot point heavy sequences and diversions into character and weirdness. It is a movie told from within the world, lacking outsiders with whom to identify and no baseline for commonplace behavior. Its unnamed, unrecognizable exurban setting allows a fantasia on theft, vengeance and punishment with some political echoes to lend it some current affairs heft. It's also a humdinger of a cinematic exercise, an altogether juicy theater-going experience with numerous stray scenes that all add up, somehow, to one of the best movies of the year.
“Killing Them Softly” opens with grubby Scoot McNairy (that's the actor's name, not the character) emerging from a tunnel in a post-industrial wasteland. The soundtrack tweaks between political stump speeches and dissonant noises, the first evidence that this film will be an assault on both your senses and sensibilities.
Scoot, doing a weirdo New Englander accent not-too-dissimilar from Seth Green's on “Family Guy,” meets with his burned-out buddy played by Australian Ben Mendelsohn. They are small time grifters but a local thug/dry cleaner (played by Johnny Sack from “The Sopranos,” but almost unrecognizable as a beta male) has a surefire plan to make some quick dough that absolutely can't go wrong.
Well, I don't have to tell you that the plan to knock over Ray Liotta's back room poker game does go wrong and it sets off a violent chain reaction that ends in bodybags or arrests for most of the cast. “Killing Them Softly” isn't a heist picture or a manhunt picture, really. It is an opportunity to get some riveting, oftentimes hilarious scene work out of some marvelous actors. In addition to those I've mentioned there's Brad Pitt (who eventually steals the protagonist's role from McNairy) as the enforcer, Richard Jenkins as the clean palmed mob lawyer and James Gandolfini as a flown-in specialty teams expert.
Gandolfini is given ample room to throw his weight around and steal every scene, replete with multiple boozed-out monologues that ought to give acting students fertile material for quite some time. Perhaps more excitedly, Dominik indulges his camera with some set pieces that may not exactly propel the narrative in any way, but they are so fundamentally cool that anyone who rolls their eyes should be, in my opinion, directed to the theater's exit door.
“Killing Them Softly” works in tandem with this summer's “Dredd” to prove that 2012 is the year of the extreme slow motion shot, this time with bullets entering (and exiting!) glass in altogether delicious ways. There's also a POV gag from junked-up Mendelsohn that shows him drifting in and out of consciousness that is funny, original and bravely relentless. “Why'd that scene last so long?” a fuddy duddy audience member might ask. Don't bother answering him – he'll never get it.
Acting as a spice rub over the entire picture is the 2008 financial crisis and bailout. Talk radio and cable news are sprinkled throughout the film, adding a nice flavor that wisely doesn't take too much attention away from the meat of the film. If one wanted to, I'm sure you could nod off on your couch trying to figure out if Brad Pitt represented Bush or if Richard Jenkins was the banking lobby, but I don't think (or, at least, I certainly don't hope) that's the point. It's an echo of the greater, troubled world but the “corrections” in this small crime operation have enough resonance for grander implications without calling for the fuss of literal analogies.
“Killing Them Softly” feels like something new in the crime film because it couldn't care less about getting the viewer acclimated. It isn't loaded with clever twists or any of the hallmarks of hardcore realism, but it does have punch. It's a narcotic dream, really, from someone so rooted in the lifestyle that it just assumes everyone can keep up. To that end, feeling a bit out of sorts from time to time is probably a good thing.