New Zealand born Aussie Andrew Dominik seems remarkably in tune with an America now, and then.
The then, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James… (For short, ten word titles take an age to write) won critical acclaim but little audience take up at the time in its study of infamy and America’s first celebrity. An apparent growing audience love of the film and the now wider seen Killing Them Softly may serve to showcase the exceptional talents of a premier director.
To see Dominik at his best when given time and space, watch his first collaboration with Brad Pitt; here playing hitman Jackie Cogan, a vital part of the underworld economic system of low level crime poker games. When Ray Liotta’s game gets hit by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendolsohn the flow of cash stops, games shut down and criminals just like everyman on the street, struggle in harsh times.
Dominik’s America now, a commentary on the effects of the economic downturn seem too contrived though here against the backdrop of the unfolding Presidential race of 2008; every TV and car radio provides coverage and his grander study seems somewhat appended when paralleling the collapse of the local crime economy with the oncoming economic storm.
Pitt once more gives a nifty performance, a lethal killer enforcing the order of the criminal system; totally pragmatic and unapologetic for his opportunistic function within this version of the corporate machine and comical when exasperated with the folly of a haphazard crew of crooks when in meets with Richards Jenkins’ mob accountant.
McNairy’s main lowlife Frankie is authentic but once more the ever brilliant Mendolsohn continues with his exceptional run of form (The Place Beyond the Pines, The Dark Knight Rises, Animal Kingdom); surely one the premier character actors right now, here allowed to remain in his native Aussie tongue as the slack-jawed druggy Russell.
Liotta’s pitiful showing as game owner Markie strikes somewhat as a departure since his recently intimidating show in The Place Beyond the Pines; here a pathetic middle man in the crime hierarchy.
The much seen James Gandolfini appears too as Pitt’s would be partner for the clean up task in hand, struggling with the demands of contract killing. He is exceptional once more.
Dominik once more gets to show outstanding directorial flair, capturing bleak urban vistas that at times feel as barren as Jesse James’ frontier prairies and when killing them leisurely in a dynamic slow motion execution, undoubted technical skill. But here it feels somewhat grandiose and even more so in a drug fuelled first-person exchange between McNairy and Mendolhson’s airheads that labours to makes its point.
Jesse James’ mammoth cinematic runtime was still far less than Dominik’s intended contemplative distance for his masterpiece and here with a relatively short runtime the director seems to struggle to balance his methodical style while covering all bases; many lengthy scenes feel unwieldy when he is seemingly not afforded the luxury of time.
Dominik’s grander political point could have been made with more subtly too rather than the telegraphed statements and satirising background TV screens, but within a prescriptive framework his scrutinising lens presents a realistic and gritty underbelly of criminality.
Whether it’s all effective in feeling relevant to the wider events of 2008 is debatable, but as a curious polar cousin to Margin Call’s top down view on the meltdown it’s a compelling and brutal bottom dwelling take on how crime somehow always pays; Pitt’s final damning assessment of America on election night is an unswerving quip that’s more economical than Dominik’s ruthless and stylish lamentation which while impressive, largely struggles to make its political musings relevant.