Monday, December 3, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Don’t let the historical gloss on Killing Them Softly fool you. The setting may occasionally resemble New Orleans circa 2008, but Andrew Dominik’s latest—an unholy merging of Goodfellas and The Wealth of Nations—is a truly dystopian nightmare. Opening with images of a desiccated slum and eddies of garbage dancing in the wind, the film cuts between an Obama speech and clanging music, dismembering the soaring rhetoric and offering a hint of the grisly horror show to come. In this fanciful kingdom of dirt and sorrow, every television in every dive bar is tuned to an endless loop of political speeches, subjecting the film’s cast of dim-witted, low-level thugs to a tag-team civics lecture conducted by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. This feels less like a real city and more like someone’s particularly obscure and specific idea of hell. Instead of the lake of fire these shiftless crooks will apparently endure an eternity of past and future presidents scolding them for their lack of community spirit.

So America is a gangster nation with a gangster economy—point well taken, Mr. Dominik. This subtext blares out over every scene, but the best moments come when the director drops the megaphone and whispers his wrathful visions straight into the viewer’s ear. The brutality of the film finds its peak in the slow-motion collapse of Scoot McNairy’s hapless hood, who, given the choice between false hope and open despair, settles on the former simply because it allows him the merciful illusion that there isn’t a bullet somewhere with his name on it. Such moments capture the disillusionment of the past four years in the United States far better than Brad Pitt’s Big Speech, which helpfully reminds us that America is a business, in case anyone napped through the past two hours (perhaps all this soft killing lulled you to sleep, who knows). But the greatest horror of all awaits viewers like myself with the good fortune to watch the film in a multiplex where the exits just happen to pass by a major department store’s fragrance counter. The dead-eyed model in the Chanel No. 5 poster is the film’s weary killer, and both say the same thing: Pay up.

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