Killing Them Softly

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on November 30, 2012

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Dear Philip J. Strina
Business and Legal Affairs

Dear Philip,

As you probably know, Adam Smith, the father of modern economic theory, coined term "the invisible hand" 250 years ago to describe the supposed self-regulating nature of the marketplace. This laissez-faire philosophy became the maxim of many American capitalists who fought any effort to criminalize their profits. But then, as the Keynsians predicted, gambling with other people's money resulted in a devastating economic collapse. And so the crooked brokers trusted their recovery to the very real hands of Brad Pitt and his 12-gauge stimulus plan. Or so the story goes.

Am I reaching for this metaphor? I'm probably not reaching far enough. The socio-economic commentary in Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is about as subtle as a shotgun blast to the face. Warranted, perhaps, since that's also Jackie Cogan's (Brad Pitt) method of choice when administering street justice. In particular, he's looking for a couple of hapless crooks that rob a big-money poker game between mob bosses. Finding the triggermen isn't hard, but he needs to make a decision: should he simply make an example of these weasels, or give them a free pass in exchange for rooting out the brains behind the operation? Let's just say that for the story's sake, he opts for the past of most resistance.

From a pure business sense (and despite being a faithful adaptation of George V. Higgins' source material), this is a straightforward gangster picture that traffics in Quentin Tarantino territory. As the criminal middlemen haggle over prices and chitchat about Obama's latest speech, Dominik makes no small effort to place his characters squarely at the centre of contemporary America. And while Brad Pitt is certainly the star, the real breakout performance comes from Scoot McNairy. Pressured to rat out his employers, McNairy's strangely childish vocal affectations make him sound like a sympathetic incarnation of Adam Sandler who's in way over his head. Ray Liotta's character also earns a lot of our empathy, but mainly by being a punching bag of bad luck with a sinking stock value.

Like John Hillcoat's Lawless, _which came out earlier this year, Domink's third film (after _Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), comes with some lofty expectations. While Hillcoat's latest effort ended up feeling bland, Domink's approach (from the central metaphor to the visuals) is overly blunt. On one hand, the opening minute is absolutely jarring, bold and lays the path for a substantive creative statement. But later, cliched uses of hyper slow-motion feel motivated more by profit (and looking great in a trailer), than any substantive storytelling purpose. In these instances, the direction is heavy handed when the same conclusion could have been reached with invisible control.

But hey, it's a free country. I got something from this film, and that's all that matters. Right?

Critiquing them softly,


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