The Familiar Conservatism of Dominik’s Killing Them Softly

When Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs hit cinema screens twenty years ago, it began a revolution in crime stories that has yet to play entirely out. Tarantino’s modus operandi was an assault of style. Resolutely apolitical and uninterested in right or wrong – his early movies typically placed us on the side of the crims – Tarantino made films infused with self-conscious cool.

Reservoir Dogs began with an iconic scene where the criminals debate the meanings of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ and the virtues of tipping (spawning a rash of imitative dialogue composed by wannabes in film schools across several continents). His 1994 Pulp Fiction made self-conscious use of an eclectic mix of surfing tunes and classic ballads, featured songs like Dusty Springfieds ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, and became a best-selling album in its own right. Tarantino’s violence was stylised, managing to be both explicit and without weight. In Pulp Fiction a man’s head is blown off in a car; the subsequent scene where the criminals clean up is played for laughs.
Tarantino called his company A Band Apart, a reference to a Godard film (Pulp Fiction is structured according to Godard’s maxim that a story must have a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) and the referents for his movies are to be found not in life itself but in other movies. Style over substance, absence of any morality, self-consciousness and imitation – Tarantino’s early movies are often said to be paradigmatically postmodern.

After Tarantino came a spate of slick and uber-cool crime thrillers. The most successful included Guy Richie’s films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (like Reservoir Dogs a heist movie) and Snatch, whose unique selling points were their intricate and labyrinthine plots. If they made less conscious use of music, they nevertheless retained Tarantino’s penchant for grandiose characterisation and lack of moral centre.

New-Zealand born Australian Andrew Dominik’s new film, Killing Them Softly, sits squarely in this post-Tarantino tradition.

Based on the 1974 book Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, the film documents a heist of an illegal poker match by two losers, Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). Unnamed powerbrokers hire Cogan (Brad Pitt) to hunt down the petty-crims and deal with the fallout from the heist.

Like its predecessors, it features stylised violence, self-conscious use of music, a cast of characters bereft of morality. Everyone we meet is ethically compromised. If our sympathies ultimately rest on the hapless Frankie, this is mostly because he doesn’t mean anyone harm. It’s a male world filled with world-weary criminals, all slowly and inevitably unravelling at the edges, with the one exception of Cogan, who gives us a kind of commentary on things, from his own perspective. There’s plenty of vitality here, and the peculiarities and flaws of the characters are well-drawn: Gandolfini’s Mikey, brought in to kill the mastermind of the heist, spends his time in a maudlin alcoholic haze, surrounded by prostitutes; the smell of Mendelsohn’s declining junky Russell practically wafts off the screen; McNairy’s Frankie is like a dumb and good-hearted friend who constantly gets himself into trouble. There’s lots of humour and pathos to be found.

Interestingly, the action takes place against the background of the 2008 presidential race and the Global Financial Crisis. Repeatedly we see Bush and Obama on television as they conduct their campaign and hear radio reports about the subprime mortgage crisis. As a never-ending deluge soaks the desolate New Orleans, where the film is set, we sense America in crisis.

Killing Them Softly thus brings a political backdrop to a resolutely apolitical genre.

At first appearance, this can seem like a contradiction: on the one hand a cast of characters bereft of ethics and on the other critique of social anomie? In a world in which there is no morality – with the exception of Cogan, whose ethics is that of the rules and laws of business – how then can one mount a critique of politician, bankers and the world that they either spawn or create?

But on further inspection, once again we’re being offered perhaps the defining aesthetic of modern cinema: the kind of conservatism found in Clint Eastwood’s films, or in the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, as Yeats would say. We are surrounded by a blood-dimmed tide. Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. Or in the words of a classic conservative, Hobbes, life is nasty, brutish and short. For Hobbes, this is an argument for a strong state, but Dominik’s vision has more of Yeats’ uncertainty. Yeats’ great poem ends not with conviction but a statement: what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, he asks?

Just as Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ is a reflection on the time of its composition in 1919 – a period of deep social crisis emerging from the First World War – the emergence of this wave of conservative films indicates a profound shift in filmmakers’ responses to the contemporary world. Things now also seem to be falling apart, even if we only acknowledge this in Australia on an unconscious level. That tales of apocalypse or decay entrances us indicates a deep shift away from the postmodern playfulness of a Tarantino or even Guy Richie. Killing Them Softly is post-Tarantino crime in the era of 9/11, the War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis.

Dominik’s standard conservative turn is all the more disappointing after his second feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, surely one of the finest movies of the last decade. A subtle meditation on heroism and hero-worship, on the desire to be loved and accepted, possessing a slow-moving elegance in deep contrast to the jittery music-video and advertising style of contemporary film, Dominik had laid claim to the title of auteur. It’s not that Killing Them Softly is lacking in style or is bereft of content. It’s a thoughtful enough movie that nevertheless lacks the originality of Dominik’s earlier films. Slick, fast-paced, clever, tense – Killing Then Softly is Tarantino for the modern age, a time where the apolitical seems increasingly anachronous.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Killing Them Softly crawls towards its tragic ending, while it does get tense I don’t think it can be called either “slick” or “fast-paced”. Tarantino makes movies that look cool. This movie never even tries to look cool. Rather than the Hollywood America, all sparkly clean and white toothed, Dominik gave us clapped out America, begrimed America, the America we rarely see (a friend of mine also commented that you could smell Ben Mendelsohn through the screen). The power of the movie comes from its excoriation of masculine roles and lives within the unfettered capitalism of the criminal world. To some extent, part of the reason this movie was so uncomfortable is because it is so anti-Tarantino and anti-Soderbergh in its aesthetic (or lack of aesthetic)that it almost can’t be classed as “entertainment” in the Hollywood sense.

  2. If you need to open your review with an essay on the career of another director, I’d call that a sophisticated way of saying there ain’t much to say.

    I will be forever grateful for viewing this film at a cinema. Had I waited for DVD, fair chance I would have pressed pause to go put the washing on, then paused again to hang it out to dry. If Mendelsohn’s character’s “nodding off” scene continued any longer I was prepared to walk out on this one altogether.
    The constant televised 2008 election was as subtle as the porcine whistle emanating from James Gandolfini’s nasal passages.

    Pitt good as always, McNairy and our Ben solid also, but really, by 2008: two retarded bandits pulling a B-grade heist (for the second time mind you) on a ganglang card game would surely have been turned into Swiss cheese by an AK-47 or three.
    Although, that would have changed the film’s festival screening from Cannes to Tropfest right there.

    Keywords: Meh, Yawn, Will Carlton make the finals in 2013

    Rating: 1 – Busey

  3. I find the comparisons with Tarantino, even if as “post-” very strange. This film feels like a million miles from Pulp Fiction and the British gangster films that followed it. I would see KTS much more in the noir tradtion, a pathetic, ugly and seedy with not even the faintest hint of glorification.

    I did think the addition of Bush Obama scenes a bit too heavy-handed. But Maybe Dominik was hoping to connect with a wider audience used to films lacking subtelty?

  4. The things which marked the film off as post-Tarrantino, for me, were the stylised violence and the use of music. When Ray Liotta’s character bites it, we see the bullet in slow motion. There are few sound effects. Instead, it is accompanied by a song. The interaction of these two elements is to present a sense of cool – and this is where we see the influence of Tarrantino. Indeed, these are two of his principle tricks.

    Agreed, the televised debates were pretty heavy-handed.

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