For a few months, I’ve been working part-time at a movie theater. During this time, the two films that have caused the strongest reactions were P.T. Anderson’s The Master and Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. I noticed that each film induced walk-outs and complaints of, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” (My firsthand experience was reinforced by CinemaScore giving Killing Them Softly an “F” rating.) Perhaps it is no coincidence that these films were two of my favorite releases this year. Note, I’m not saying that my opinion is more correct; I’m simply saying that I tend to be attracted to more provocative material.
In an effort to clarify how YOU might feel about Killing Them Softly, here are ten things I liked about the movie that you might not.
Rated R: “For violence…”
Indeed, this is the first thing I mention to prospective moviegoers, as it is often the first complaint of those who didn’t like the film. Many found it (and by it, I mean the few violent scenes) to be excessive, and at least one reviewer thought it was “pure broken bone torture porn.” Yes, the violence is excessive, drawn out, and wince-inducing, but what it does not do is glorify violence. Dare I say that I welcome on-screen violence producing a violent reaction? Would you rather be repulsed by violence, or would you rather go see Bullet to the Head (which was advertised before Killing Them Softly)? Which one seems pornographic to you? Besides, the film’s philosophy on violence is spelled out in the trailer and in the title (!!!).
Those complaining that writer-director Andrew Dominik is too heavy handed (not I, but more on this later) must be irritated by his choice of music. One might notice that the music tends to break the fourth wall by commenting on the scene. For example, as we see in the trailer, Johnny Cash sings, “There’s a man/coming round/taking names,” just as a man comes around and starts taking names. One can almost anticipate which songs are going to come next, except for the glaring omission of “Killing Me Softly.”
Guys Named Squirrel
There’s a guy named Squirrel. I want to know how he got that name so badly that I’m going to read the book.
Some reviewers (Ebert, Peter Travers) have noted that the film takes place in New Orleans. Ebert even wrote of his frustration at Dominik’s inability to reflect the identity of the city. This film is NOT set in New Orleans; it was FILMED in New Orleans. Dominik has stated that he sought to set the film, quite simply, in an American city. The troubles of this generic city act as a backdrop for the action and often take place away from us, out of focus. American viewers don’t need to see what is going on back there; that is the “real” world that we deal with every day.
Hilarious Australian Junkies
Or rather, one hilarious Australian junkie.
At times, Andrew Dominik’s camera recalls the style-for-style’s-sake, bullet-time, slow-mo style of Guy Ritchie, but where Ritchie’s films ultimately fail the style vs. content test, in my eyes, Dominik’s gets a pass. Although several scenes are highly stylized, there are more that play as gritty and distant. The contrast in styles invites us to draw emotional conclusions (for example, the difference between two “jobs” carried out by Pitt’s Jackie).
I’ve yet to read a bad word about any of the performances in the film, but I suppose I shouldn’t leave it at that. The skill of the main four or five actors is vital to the film because the structure often necessitates that one character or another carry the film for long stretches. In turn, each actor makes the film his own. I’d hate to single out any performance (especially since this guy will get most of the glory anyway), but Brad Pitt knows exactly how to perform in this capacity, dominating some scenes or hanging back and simply reacting in others. He perfectly captures the elusive Jackie, advancing his own lot by being whomever he needs to be at a given time.
Like I said, there are several really great performances here. Credit partly goes to the incredible casting. Dominik said (in the interview linked earlier) that he actually sought to typecast, to an almost “cartoonish” degree, no less. Perhaps you’re beginning to sense a theme.
Rated R: “…for sexual references, pervasive language…”
My friends and I thought this film was really funny. Then again, maybe we’re kinda sick. The consensus among reviewers seems to be that much of the dialogue is profane, offensive, and in some cases demeaning (the only female speaking role is a prostitute who is verbally abused). No doubt all this is true, but the dialogue (and humor, if it can be considered that) always comes from character, so I have no problem with it.
Killing Them Softly has had much written about its overt, heavy-handed symbolism. Again from the interview linked above, Dominik affirms his intention was to make a “political cartoon.” Some have been annoyed by this, finding it distracting and impractical; Roger Ebert thought it unlikely that so many bars would have TVs playing C-SPAN. But I don’t think anyone can claim that the film’s premise — that American identity is at least partially defined by greed and hypocrisy — is incorrect. As stated in the dialogue, this has been the case since Thomas Jefferson. And this is not the first film to equate petty criminals with white-collar thieves, but critics seem to dislike that Dominik isn’t inviting the comparison as much as literally stating it (by quoting Barack Obama no less). I viewed this aspect of the film as an exercise, a fresh new version of an old trick. Also, I refuse to believe it’s as simple as it seems and that there is some subtext left, as much as critics seem to disagree.
In terms of audience satisfaction, I think the real problem here, and with The Master, is that each film takes an unflinching look at American life from a perspective we might have never seen. So it can be frustrating when viewers cannot relate to the characters in the way we, frankly, have been trained to. Others have noted that the identity crises portrayed in The Master and Killing Them Softly contrast starkly to the nostalgic films that dominated the theaters (and awards ceremonies) last year. If one is expecting a simple, entertaining crime film with Brad Pitt in the vein of last year’s fare (i.e. not looking to have his national ideology challenged), one is bound to be surprised or even angered. There is nothing wrong with seeking a relatively simple or traditional crime film — this just isn’t one.
And that’s what I liked about it.