As evidenced by his approach to the Western genre with 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', it seemed unlikely that with 'Killing Them Softly' writer-director Andrew Dominik would tune his approach to the crime genre more toward audiences' preconceptions of what constitutes an entry in that particular field. His meticulous or, some might say, languid approach to the legend of Jesse James, was coupled with superb performances and masterful cinematography that, in the end, was layered with inferences about how such an individual, i.e., a criminal, could wind up being something of a romanticized figure in American history.
And so, with his new film 'Killing Them Softly,' Dominik approaches similar territory by suggesting an inexorable link between criminality and greed as insidious offshoots of the supposed autonomy that America was built on. But what's most interesting about Dominik's film isn't that it has a serious thematic throughline to what is essentially a simple heist thriller, but that, unlike his previous film, the subtext is no longer an undercurrent to the exploits taking place on screen; it is an overt element that permeates nearly every frame of the stylishly violent and swiftly-paced film.
Looking through the lens of the country's dour economic climate during the 2008 Presidential election, 'Killing Them Softly' puts a specific timestamp on the grimy proceedings of the country's criminal underbelly; itself made even more prominent in the setting of post-Katrina New Orleans. That particular milieu adds further depth to the rather unambiguous contrast created by the bare-knuckled brutality of the characters and the grand speech-making of certain politicians (in this case: Bush and Obama).
All the blatant visual cues and overlaying sound bites play right alongside the film's plot, which starts when two bottom feeders (played by Ben Mendelsohn of 'The Dark Knight Rises' at his sweatiest, and 'Argo' star Scoot McNairy, doing a bang-up Casey Affleck impersonation) take a job from Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack of 'The Sopranos') to hit a mob-protected poker game that's being run by Ray Liotta's tragic, but well-liked gangster/punching-bag Markie Trattman.
The scene itself works out to be one of the film's highlights, as McNairy's squeaky-voiced Frankie barks orders to a room full of mafia types, while Australian-accented Russell keeps mum and collects the cash. It's a tension-filled few minutes that is executed brilliantly by Dominik and his actors, and helps to usher in the sense of desperation that is so prevalent throughout the film.
The chaos brought about by this criminal-on-criminal transgression bleeds seamlessly into what Dominik sees as the mob being run like a corporate entity, whose approach is to issue a response by anonymous committee, a bit of group-think by the ever-present "they" as to what is the the best course of action to correct the collapse of the criminal economy that once surrounded Trattman's poker games. This leads to the introduction of hitman Jackie Cogan (played with a relaxed swagger by Brad Pitt) to help sort out the odds and ends of who needs to be whacked and when.
Pitt works his way into the proceedings of 'Killing Them Softly' like a wild animal that's wandered into a residential area, his deadly presence registered by all, but none seem sure of just when and upon whom he will strike first. There's an inaccessibility in the way Pitt plays Cogan that is somewhat unsettling initially, but it’s a portrayal that begins to make more sense and carry more weight as the film follows Cogan from a series of around-the-water-cooler-esque chats with Richard Jenkins, to the more personal and intimate conversations with the voracious yet down-on-his-luck hitman played effortlessly by James Gandolfini, and, eventually to the film's violent and deliberately self-aware conclusion.
The elements Dominik chooses to work with are not uncommon for films of this ilk, but the specific blend with which he distributes them does feel unique in this particular case. Rather than play one against the other, or sweep the social commentary under the rug until it's a mere implication, the director marries the brutal, graphic violence with overt observations of the '08 economic turmoil. The result is a film that puts its visceral acts of carnage on level footing with the malfeasance that caused the country's financial unrest.
While he provides plenty of blatant observations, Dominik wisely avoids aligning with either side of the political debate. Instead, the director chooses to ponder the connection – or, rather, the lack thereof – between the individual's running the country and those merely living in it.
This is a unique crime film that eschews subtlety for brashness, and while its success in that endeavor is questionable, the end result certainly hints at the next step in a director's evolution. In the end, the implication of 'Killing Them Softly' is clear, but it isn't nearly as bold or provocative as the manner in which the point was so consciously delivered.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Killing Them Softly' is a Blu-ray + DVD combo that also includes an Ultraviolet copy for you to watch via your computer, tablet or smartphone. The standard two-disc case houses the Blu-ray and DVD discs, and although the cover art doesn't feature some of the stellar artwork made to promote the film, it doesn't fall into the standard "floating head" syndrome of so many other releases either.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer does a fantastic job of capturing the griminess of the criminal underbelly, in the perpetually soggy, sweat-drenched city of New Orleans. No detail was overlooked in making this film, and although much of Greg Fraser's cinematography deliberately obscures some of the background elements with a very shallow depth of field, there is never a sense that you are missing anything; the image is there to guide the viewer to the elements the director wants you to see.
In that regard, there is plenty of detail on display, and with the aforementioned depth of field, most of it allows for an excellent showing of facial features and fine textures on clothing. Skin tones are dramatic and lifelike to the degree that viewers will be compelled to lean forward and offer Mendehsoln a hanky to wipe his ever-perspiring brow and upper lip. Similarly, the drinker's nose of Gandolfini's washed-up hitman practically leaps off the screen, while Pitt's perpetually slicked back hair is shinier than his leather jacket.
For the most part, contrast levels are quite high; blacks tend to be deep and inky, making characters walking amongst the darkness clearly defined and easy to register. White levels never burn too brightly – which is often a temptation for films set in an area like New Orleans. Moreover, colors are all bright and vivid. Occasionally, crime pictures such as this tend to throw in a heavy filter that distorts the color palette, or they otherwise purposely mute the tones, but thankfully, none of that is on display here. Like skin tones and other features, colors are very natural, but still manage to pop and have the kind of brilliance that's expected of a quality Blu-ray release.
'Killing Them Softly' comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that does a remarkable job balancing certain musical elements with some of the more bombastic sequences highlighting the film's stylish violence. These elements help to offset the fact that the dialogue (of which there is plenty) can sometimes feel a tad muted in places.
To be fair, this only happens on a few occasions – mostly in scenes where Pitt's Cogan is talking in his very measured and precise tone. It's not enough to derail the mix, but there are times when a few of the character's lines may require a second pass, or a quick adjustment of the overall volume. Everywhere else, though, the dialogue is crisp, clear and readily understandable, so this may just be a result of Pitt's particular cadence in the film.
Overall, though, the rest of the mix is very precise and enjoyable. Surround elements are readily present in nearly every scene, with the rear channels picking up the din of a construction site, a busy bar and especially the falling rain during Markie Trattman's "questioning" at the hands of the Caprio brothers. Adding additional resonance to the mix, punches land with an effusive thud, which are made even more demonstrative by subtle embellishments that hint at the damage being done. Elsewhere, gunfire rings out with solid bursts of deep bass that registers each shot, making the brutality feel more significant and effective.
This is a solid mix that highlights many of the film's strengths, and although there are moments where the dialogue could have been clearer, it isn't enough to bring down the otherwise very strong audio on this disc.
'Killing Them Softly' is Andrew Dominik's third feature film, and while there are plenty of common themes running through his two other titles, this feels like a departure for the director in terms of style and delivery. Whether or not Dominik was completely successful in how he presented the film, it certainly marks his next step as a filmmaker and an artist, and should put him on the list of auteurs worth keeping an eye out for. As far a crime pictures go, this was never going to be a simple run-and-gun mob flick (in fact it would probably make a nice double feature with Steven Soderbergh's 'The Limey'), and because of that, it may stand as one of the more unique entries to the genre in recent memory. Since so many folks passed it up in theaters, hopefully more will be willing to give it a chance at home. While it's lacking on special features, the Blu-ray comes with great picture and sound that certainly makes this title worth recommending.