A film that wears its allegorical themes on its sleeve is an interesting concept for a film. There’s something bubbling underneath a typical plot on a movie about the economy, crime, or society in general. But, for that message to stick onto the viewers and make them understand and appreciate the film as a whole, the message needs to be handled delicately. Sure, there can be a movie script that provides an on-the nose view in terms of the film’s allegorical message, or maybe handled more deftly, never spelling the idea out to the audience on hand. These two techniques are used for director Andrew Dominik’s latest film of George V. Higgin’s novel about the crime syndicate coming under hard times within their systems, and a group of characters all caught in the middle of it. But, while Dominik has some good ideas on the state of America symbolized through mobsters and low lives, the film never comes together to provide a worthwhile film experience.
The problem with this film is that Dominik handles its characters as more of a playwright view than fully realized characters. Not to say that this technique is a bad idea on film, as director William Friedkin utilized that type of characterization in the entertainingly dark film Killer Joe, but here Dominik simply uses this film to place characters as symbolic standpoints for the film’s message. The film revolves around a robbery by two low lives (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) on a card game run by the mob, to which the crime syndicate hires an enforcer (Brad Pitt) to root out who could have been the culprits of the robbery. Now, a crime story like that seems a bit thin (coupled to the fact that the film’s run time is 97 minutes), but there’s always meat to add to the film’s script if a director and screenwriter have a vision that is interesting to say and engage in.
That vision for Dominik revolves the concept of the dying American dream, where it’s no longer about unity among brotherhood and business, but rather the need to find a way to make a quick buck. Everyone is either out of themselves in Killing Them Softly, or helping one another in the hopes that, personally, they will come out with their own pay day. That ideal is no truer than McNairy’s Frankie and Mendelsohn’s Russell; two low lives who take up the offer to rob the mob’s poker game. These two represent opposite sides of the individual American, one who wants to make something of themselves on the business side, while the other is happy where he is. McNairy nails the Boston-accented Frankie, a somewhat well groomed guy who wants to make a score, but that’s about it. As for the Australian Mendelsohn, he’s the more interesting of the two robbers. A completely disgusting drug addict that takes up the robbery with not much care, he’s the latter of the group who wants to do something with the money he has, even if the business proposition doesn’t seem like a very worthwhile investment.
As for the mob infrastructure, there are different shades that are represented by Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini. They each make up a different aspect of the economical world in America. Here, the mob isn’t portrayed as this tough-as-nails organization that will cement a guy and throw them to the fishes, but rather an organization that likes to cut corners and finances to ensure that the job is done. Richard Jenkins is the cypher of that organization, the go-between guy who’s just trying to his job, and having to deal with the “paperwork” in a sense. Pitt and Gandolfini portray the low-level hit men of the organization, each with their own outlook on their profession. Pitt is the more aware of his scenario as Jackie, an enforcer who has his own principles in terms of killing, as well as a penchant of knowing how this business runs. Gandolfini plays Mickey, a seasoned veteran of the mob game that has become withered to the world around him, and no longer seems to be the professional that he once was.
Now, as you can see, Dominik certainly has these piles of layers to form a film that is more than just the average crime drama, but more of a look at America, particularly surrounding the 2008 election and economic recession. But, while Dominik has these puzzle pieces; he can’t seem to put them together to make the film interesting. There are film techniques and visual cues that are arresting and engaging (the opening sequence and a scene involving a heroin stupor was particularly memorable), but the film’s themes and story never achieve to keep to that kind of level. In a sense, the ambition that Dominik wants to make with his themes and symbolic characters either come across as on-the nose, or not particularly interesting. One scene involving a monologue by Gandolfini perfectly encapsulates that arm’s length that Dominik keeps the majority of his audience. I get what he’s trying to do, I appreciate what he’s trying to do, but I don’t find it engaging.
And that’s the ultimate problem with Killing Them Softly. When a film tries to attain an allegorical vision, that vision needs to be something that should feel viable, interesting, and complete. The actors are all admirable and Dominik can certainly shoot the hell out of the film, but the script’s allegorical message just can‘t sustain itself to be engaging. The film is not an ultimate failure, but it sadly doesn’t achieve the goals that it hoped to deliver to the audience.