KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012, Andrew Dominik): 9/10
Leave it to an Australian to make the quintessential American political picture of the year. Fusing some pointed messages about the economic collapse of 2008 with notions of the current urban landscape as the Old West where justice comes in the form of a bullet and the morgue, Dominik’s hard-boiled film noir is one of the best movies of the year. The plot is basically a short story (though it’s based on a 1974 novel) — and coming in at about 95 minutes, the film is too (including some detours for lengthy conversations that go nowhere but are delightful to listen to) — and a simple tale of a corporation stamping down on the peasants who dared revolt against it.
In this case, the corporation is an organized mob run by “them” (as the always reliable Richard Jenkins refers to it) and the revolting peasants are barely-a-step-above-homeless junkies (played marvelously by ARGO’s Scoot McNairy and ANIMAL KINGDOM’s Ben Mendelsohn) who decide to knock off an underground card game. Not for nothing — that card room robbery, which dominates the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, is such an outstanding piece of sustained tension and minimalist cinema that I was convinced this film might be a true masterpiece (it doesn’t quite sustain that level of brilliance, but that sequence alone — one of the best scenes in any 2012 film — is nearly enough to call this thing great).
Then Brad Pitt enters as an independent contracter hired to find out who pulled off the robbery and serve up retribution. It leads to bringing in yet another freelance killer (James Gandolfini, reuniting with TRUE ROMANCE co-star Pitt in some conversations that don’t revolve around bongs or the Safari Motel Inn, but are even more uproariously funny) and then the madness starts. All throughout, we’re treated to TV screens and radios documenting Obama’s victory over McCain, though in Dominik’s America, change is hopeless: this is still a land of individualism and raw capitalism, and the poor have no choice (despite Pitt convincing McNairy otherwise).
I could go on about the parallels between economic policy and the gangster plot, but the film does the job through cinema and great writing — but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is too much of a talky piece. Dialogue-heavy though it is, there are gracefully majestic displays of filmmaking here; the drive-by shooting of one victim in particular is indelible and beautiful in its unsparing violence and lyricism. The violence here isn’t fetishized or glamorized, but it is visually stunning — and incredibly graphic. When brains are blown out, they’re Blown. Out. When people are punched, the audio mix punches you back. Like with his previous look at American history with THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Dominik’s film is gritty and profound, funny and sad. And above all, it’s visceral — both in its pointed message and pure cinematic pleasures.