Killing Them Softly: A Review

By – Ajay Patri

  Why do we watch a Quentin Tarantino film? Certainly not for the plot or the story, right? I would watch them because the man knows how to tell a story and tell it well. Those thoughts were running through my mind after I saw Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly almost three weeks back (I didn’t for the life of me have the time to write this before due to exams and now that they are over, I don’t have anything better to do).

This movie, which premiered in Cannes and released in India recently (but not in the US yet; the producers clearly have the awards season in mind and with good reason) is extremely good but I can’t quite decide if it is outright brilliant, a masterpiece that I would want to come back to repeatedly.

The plot, as you would have guessed by my reference to Tarantino in the beginning, is paper thin to say the least. A few guys rob a mob enforced poker game and a guy is hired to bump them off. That’s it. You will be hard pressed to find spoilers for a film like this because there are none.

But the lack of a well thought out and layered plot doesn’t automatically make this just another gangster flick where people get their brains blown out and talk with lots of colourful language. It is that, but it is also so much more.

And that is because of the way the movie is directed and Dominik has such a sure hand in the way he treats every scene in this short film with a run time of about ninety minutes. There are scenes in this film that will probably be shown in film academies to budding directors to give them a good idea of style over substance.

Lots of these scenes involve people talking. These people talk a lot. I repeat, a lot. Everybody in this film, just about everybody, loves to talk. And if you pay attention to their conversations, you will find yourself enjoying the film. This is especially important because a lot of the action happens off screen and the long conversations are what let you know about them, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure, the profane kind. They all swear a lot too.

And then there is the violence. It is intermittent but extremely graphic and handled with a good deal of care by the makers. There is, for want of a better word, an aesthetic quality about it. It might sound wrong to state something like that but there is no other way to describe a slow motion scene at a traffic signal where a man is shot repeatedly with rain falling down and the window of his car shattering and his brains getting blown to smithereens. It is a virtuoso shot, make no mistake of it. And then there is the technically brilliant scene showing the after effects of a drug induced stupor, set to the appropriate tune of Heroin by The Velvet Underground (maybe the best use of a song I have seen in a film). The soundtrack, including this particular tune, is absolutely stunning and propels the narrative forward in ever so subtle a manner.

The acting is top notch. Brad Pitt is brilliant as a hit man with slicked back hair, a shotgun and some surprisingly deep and sensible opinions about the economy (I will get to this in a bit). The other cast, which comprises entirely of men, is great too. Everybody knows what they are doing and they all deliver their lines with an ease that makes it hard to think they are anything but the characters they portray.

But what are these characters exactly? You don’t see their families, you don’t see their friends or the company they hang around, you don’t see them interact with anyone other than fellow gangsters. The unnamed city seems to be in a perpetual state of downpour and the citizens seem blurred and far away from the world that the main characters inhabit; not unlike another Pitt film, Seven. By not letting the audience know more about these characters, it is difficult to generate any amount of sympathy or empathy for these guys.

This does not go unnoticed by the director either. He tries hard to make you understand. I think the problem is: he tries a little too hard.

I haven’t read the source material, a book called Cogan’s Trade (Cogan is Brad Pitt’s name and his trade, as stated, is bumping off people) but unlike the book, the film was adapted to a more contemporary setting; more specifically, the time of the 2008 Presidential elections in the US. And this is incorporated in the film in a never ending background score of the debates and speeches given during the time, played on television sets that nobody seems to bother watching. Yet, almost everyone in the film tries to use this context to explain their actions. Yes, we know the economy was messed up back then,. The director didn’t have to resort to such a device to give the impression that he was making a deeply philosophical point. At times, especially towards the end, you will be surprised by the amount of sermonizing that is happening on screen with any hint of subtlety long forgotten.

This left me a little perplexed and questioning the reasons why someone would do that. The awards? Definitely, yeah. But is that reason enough? I am not sure. I would have been perfectly happy to watch a gangster film with some great acting, some great lines, some great music and some truly mind-blowing scenes. But the force-feeding of those philosophical musings left a bad taste. I would still recommend it to anyone who loves a little art mixed with their films. It’s just that sometimes, trying too hard might not be a good thing.

P.S.: This is the kind of film that I would want to watch a Director’s Cut version of. I heard they have a two and a half hour version in the can. I hope it sees the light of day sometime.

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