I adore Andrew Dominik, CHOPPER is just stupendous and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is my favourite film of the 00s. As such I was very much excited for KILLING HIM SOFTLY. As such I’m kind of conflicted about the film, because I think from any other director I’d view it as an absolute slamdunk, but as a follow up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES it feels at times kind of perfunctory.
That isn’t actually fair, for it’s first hour the film is amazing, it just deflates in its last half hour and ends on a resolution which I’m not sure about. The ultimate resolution feels earned and is perfectly keeping within the tone of the film, but it happens so switftly and mercilessly that I was left wondering what the overall point of the film was. Set just before the 2008 election, and littered with news excerpts dealing with the economic downturn, the film seems to be largely about individualism vs. groupwork and how that synchs up with the modern America. It’s a point that is kind of hammered home through discussions between the characters and through a fairly lengthy monologue towards the end of the film. As such whilst there’s an obvious theme that the film is going for, the plot sort of exists to facilitate that theme. This is something that Dominik did with both his previous films (CHOPPER was more a character study than anything else, whilst THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES used plot as one of many tools) but in KILLING THEM SOFTLY it feels jarring. This is largely because the Elmore Leonard style setup and sheer volume of dialogue throughout the film grounds it in a way that the more ethereal ASSASSINATION wasn’t. As such you’re left wanting a satisfying resolution to the plot, rather than theme.
That isn’t to say the film isn’t good, it’s borderline brilliant at times, playing with mood and tone with an amazingly deft touch and showing some directorial flourishes which should be hokey but which are executed which such command that they actually become kind of jaw dropping. The first hour of the film is great, and it largely benefits from a razor like focus on a small selection of characters.The first half of the film largely deals with a trio of small time criminals and their plans to rob a card game. The continued focus on these characters, and in particular the focus on the two actual robbers Frankie and Russell, buoys the first act even when the film is dumping information. It helps that Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn have great chemistry. Mendelsohn in particular (who was so great in ANIMAL KINGDOM and so ridiculously wasted in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) manages to make what should be a sketch of a character actually work. He really brings a sense of history and persona to a character who is largely a cipher and his camaraderie with McNairy is fantastic. It’s when the film moves away from these two to focus on an ensemble cast that the film sort of loses its way, Brad Pitt sort of flits in and out of the picture at will and whilst he is great it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is something of a vanity project for him. Pitt’s character, Cogan, has very little to do other than wax lyrical and be exceptionally proficient at what he does. He’s like some streetwise sage, who happens to be murderously efficient.
Pitt isn’t the problem, but having the film be framed as so in awe of his character sort of robs the film of an actual protagonist as the Frankie and Russell sort of disappear into the background during the second act. The introduction, late on, of Gandolfini doesn’t help either as his scenes are essentially monologues in all but name and need some kind of pay off that never comes. Essentially by the time the third act roles around we’ve become so disconnected from Frankie and Russell that it doesn’t really matter what happens to them.
Which is a shame because the film is Great, it just feels like it’s missing something to make all the elements work together. When the film is working it feels like a stablemate of JACKIE BROWN, when it’s not it feels closer to THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.