Andrew Dominik took a good long time (five years) to release his feature-length follow-up to his magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That he is re-teaming with his boy Brad Pitt for this film too, and maintaining the quiet despair and slow-going existentialism of his previous work, begs a mighty something indeed, a something the film can’t quite comfortably coalesce into a wholly successful finished product when all is said and done. Certainly, Dominik’s work is solid here, composed and well-formed and structured with intellect and care, but things only truly alight in a few select sequences where he decides he doesn’t need to be burdened with the weight of narrative filmmaking. It’s a good film, but a disappointingly slight one for a director of Dominik’s skill and gasping ambition. With his last film, he only re-wrote the book – or at least brought back out the re-written book after decades of being lost to dust in the attic – on impressionist, opulent Westerns and American identity… no big deal. Here, he tells a fine crime story, but one is left wanting a little by the transition.
Certainly, there are moments that rise to the occasion. An early heist, in particular, is wonderfully nervy, caught up in unbearable little moments of physical humanity and exasperated anxiety. A late film sequence where a character makes good on the film’s title is also a keeper, nearly impressionist in its treatment of woeful humanism and treating time as a series of moments more than a fluid passage (it’s also the only part of the film that even attempts the sort of mythic melancholy of the gushingly lovely The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The first scene, short and terse and approximating an opening credits bit, also cuts through the film like a barbed, rusty knife through butter, interpolating staccato bits of the title card into the mythic character of Jackie (Brad Pitt), a no-nonsense criminal-for-hire and a proud modern-man who wanders in, does his business, and wanders out without batting an eye.
But the film around Jackie doesn’t ever set fire. The embers are there, but there’s a sense the whole thing has been so well-worn and re-heated time and time again they’re all ash and dust now, sapped of any crisp freshness or spirit. Dominik’s story is depressingly familiar – it’s essentially a character study of a number of arch-males for the modern era – treading material Scorsese elevated to the levels of a fire-and-brimstone sermon forty years ago. But in 2012, when Dominik’s film was released, some mighty behind-the-camera heft is needed to lift up such material, and Dominik seems to be slacking a little bit. Certainly, his heart was in the right place, for his non-narrative storytelling which favors moments more than a cohesive story fits well with the nature of these men who do not know the pleasures of human time and instead wallow around in an unending limbo of moments divorced from progression. And his naturally even-handed, naturalistic lens also captures the little details of the way these men live their lives devoid of emotion, or swallowed up by fear.
But with so many characters (Pitt is the heaviest hitter star-wise, so he gets some semblance of preference, but there really isn’t a main character to be found here) vying for screen time, a certain tightness and rigor is necessary to the filmmaking to keep things moving with intent and purpose. The film, for its strengths, doesn’t quite hit that level, with scenes devolving into unnecessarily talky affairs where men posture like pseudo-philosophers devoid of bite. The only reason the film gets a pass on this front is that about half the time Dominik seems to realize they’re cultivating a false, mythical image of the “individualist, nihilist alpha-male” that hurts more then it helps, but half can only get you so far. The director relies far too much of fussy dialogue, sacrificing, and seemingly not even attempting, the visual aplomb of his last film. Killing Them Softly seems more content to sit back and let its characters speak without using its visual nature to reveal anything about how they are speaking, or what the film’s view on them speaking might be.
Now, I’m not saying Dominik had to go for the same sort of opulent beauty – something down-and-dirty, grimy, and ugly would have been perfectly fitting for this film. But if the cinematography rises to this challenge (the aforementioned “highs” are some of the most wonderfully chilly moments of visual decay found anywhere this side of 2010), the rest of the filmmaking is just a tad bit functional. It’s somewhat depressingly straightforward, and even tepid, for a filmmaker who seemed wholly and fascinatingly committed to establishing a vision of the world in his previous film. Here he’s just recycling. Worse, he’s directing down to what he is recycling, rather than elevating tired material with a burst of filmic energy and craft.
Elsewhere though, there are moments that not only don’t register as the highs of Dominik’s previous film, but seem actual missteps. A mid-film killing, burdened with painful slo-mo, is graced with nice individual shots, but the whole thing is less than the sum of its parts and seems too invested in the self-conscious cool of the whole affair rather than becoming a critique of the same. It almost seems like Zack Snyder stepped in to direct one scene. Worse still is a painfully lazy through-line running from beginning to end which juxtaposes Barack Obama speechifying about America’s greatness while Dominik self-importantly throws all manner of contradictory visual evidence at the screen to say “you see, it’s funny because it’s not really all going as well as that Obama says it is now is it!”.
Killing Them Softly needs a certain alertness, a certain twitchy nature, to feel fresh again, and Dominik only partially gets there. At least the whole affair is thankfully over and out in less than 100 minutes, an almost ungodly short time in this day and age for “serious” films, even if the editing side-winds back and forth between note-perfect and seriously lackadaisical and indulgent. Killing Them Softly is good in just about every way (except that damn Obama footage), but it’s missing a certain spark that could have taken it over the fence into greatness.