In Andrew Dominik’s previous film, the superb revisionist Western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, he staged the last days of an iconoclastic gangster with a strong feeling for how his story could take root in the American imagination. Dominik’s follow-up, Killing Them Softly, makes that subtext text, wondering aloud what makes America America, and exploring the greed and avarice that cannot be extricated from the freedom and opportunity that’s supposed to make the country great. While it isn’t unusual for nasty little genre movies like Dominik’s stylish heist thriller to smuggle such themes under the surface, Killing Them Softly makes them startlingly explicit. All the criminal mayhem that composes it—an audacious robbery and the bloody retribution that follows—is mere prelude to a thesis statement, support for a grim assessment of the country on the eve of the 2008 Presidential election.
“In no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” Barack Obama said in stump speeches from ’08 to the present. Dominik sees his vision of American exceptionalism from a glass-half-empty perspective. Just as Obama took advantage of opportunities unique to this country, the hoods in Killing Me Softly, operating in the looter’s paradise of New Orleans, are keen to find their own angle. In the film’s most exciting section, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, two low-level crooks who resemble human sewer rats, take the assignment to knock off a mobbed-up card game for $100,000. Should they get away with it—no small feat, given two tables full of glowering men of violence—McNairy and Mendelsohn are hoping the blame falls on the host (Ray Liotta), who was caught robbing one of his own games in the past. Brad Pitt plays an enforcer brought in to find the men responsible and clean up the various messes they’ve created.
The entire affair unfolds in the period between the 2008 economic collapse (and subsequent Wall Street bailout) and Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park, and Dominik never misses the chance to note the disconnect between the lofty rhetoric of campaign speeches and the feral dogfight taking place on the ground. It often seems like Dominik is playing against his own strengths: The robbery sequence is an instant classic, an agonizingly patient white-knuckler in which armed halfwits go swimming with sharks, but Killing Them Softly settles into a portentous conversation piece that makes too much of a show of its own significance. Dominik will be damned if he’s going to make some run-of-the-mill shoot-’em-up, and the film certainly isn’t that, for better or worse.
Set in a New Orleans still raw from the federal neglect following Katrina, Killing Them Softly emphasizes how far removed the hand of government—whether it’s Bush selling the bailout or Obama’s hope-and-change—is from the way people go about their business. Dominik is careful not to play ideological favorites—he dispenses fodder for people on both ends of the political spectrum—because he’s more interested in measuring the distance between the professed ideals of modern-day America and the outlaw past it never fully left behind. For a genre film, Killing Them Softly goes to an awfully strange, none-too-subtle place, but the choice to move the ’08 election from background to overlay is unusually bold and thought-provoking, too. Dominik knows his way around a breath-stopping suspense setpiece, but his ambition to do more is encouraging, even when it isn’t wholly successful.