• Pages

  • Site Sections

  • Tags

  • Archives

Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik: The absence of other minds



An American Tail



Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik

One of the deepest and most interesting issues in Philosophy is that of knowledge of other minds. How is it that we can come to know, understand, care, hate, love another person? Indeed the idea of what it is to be a person is an aspect of the other minds issue.

Wittgenstein: “my attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.”

In real life this rests upon a shared form of life of language users. But if language can be used to convey the truth; it must be possible for it to be misused to deceive, to cheat and to lie. In novels we are given privileged access to the inner lives of characters either in first person narratives or through the direct access of the author expressed in the 3rd person.

Film offers us a more immediately intimate but less definite insight into the private thoughts and feelings of others: we do not have the certain guidance of the author into his/her characters. Film is about show not tell. The narrator convention, common in the past, but rare now, is essentially a linguistic convention from literature. This is probably why many film-makers have discarded it.

The privileged access film offers is that especially through the close-up, we cross the boundary of private space in a way that would be uncomfortable in real life except in special circumstances: lovers, mother and baby, in sickness perhaps. Despite this intimacy we still have to imagine, judge, wonder at the inner thoughts, plans, intentions of the character(s) we see so directly that we quickly pick up artifice, pretence, inauthenticity. That is why the cardinal rule of screen acting is, paradoxically not to act: for the camera always sees it, and reveals it’s pretence to us. Conveying truth in language is intentional, requiring care and attention to choice of words and the avoidance of misunderstanding and ambiguity. Conveying truth in screen acting is to try to be your character on camera and allow the viewer to see for himself.

Killing Them Softly is an accomplished film. Technically, through cinematography, editing and sound it is extremely well made; even creative. The performances are generally good too though one or two become mannered and unconvincing.

For these reasons it would be wrong to call this a bad film. But sadly, and I was very much looking forward to it, it is a rotten film. Rotten to its core. There is not a single character with a single redeeming feature in the whole film. It is a heartless film about heartless people, not one of whom do we care about for a second. This isn’t a film about men who live their lives as criminals in a criminal community. It is a film about criminal stereotypes who act out stereotypical roles in a cynically constructed Hollywood product. They are totally one dimensional: devoid of anything approaching a relationship other than assassin and victim. They have no life outside the lazy narrative writer director Andrew Dominik has created for them. None of the characters, nor their actions carries even the hint of a context of lives within which their action(s) might make sense. Characters have three main functions in Killing Them Softly: to kill; to be killed; or to order people to be killed. The only woman in the film is a hooker and in the conversations about wives or girl-friends the prevailing impression is of women as a consumable commodity. Interchangeable.

Almost everyone in the film is portrayed as stupid, violent or both. There isn’t a single police character in the film – just people who turn up in flashing cars because the ‘plot’ requires it.

Frankie (Scott McNairy) is a feckless ex-con looking to pull off a heist set up by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola). It needs two so Frankie brings in an Aussie acquaintance Russell (Ben Mendelson). No one has friends in this movie. Russell is semi-comatose on drugs except when he’s fully comatose. Reluctantly he agrees to suspend his dog-napping scheme to help Frankie hold up an illegal card game run by Markie (Ray Liottta). Johnny claims they’ll get away with it because it is known that Markie had his own game held up once before so when it happens again – he’ll get the blame. This isn’t so much a plot as an excuse for someone who can’t be arsed to think up a coherent narrative.

These two numbnuts aren’t even entertainingly incompetent: Dominik seems to relish making them just plain thick: Frankie is conscious and thick; Russell is just thick. What you see and hear is what you get: they don’t have any inner lives; any thoughts; their only existence is in the continuum of the movie. There are no other minds to discern.

Clad in marigold kitchen gloves because Russell was too stupid to get anything else; and sporting a shotgun so sawn off that the cartridges protrude from the chamber, these two unconvincingly pull off the heist more by default than intention. A scene which in Jackpot would have been wittily and hilariously filmed; is here left devoid of any flair and instead of amusingly inept, these two just look stupidly lucky.

With super assassin and contract killer Dillon (Sam Shepard – probably turned up for a day then quickly buggered of in disgust) out of action his number two Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) takes on the contract to sort out the mess and get the card games back on track earning money. As he appears to be the only character in the whole film with more than one brain cell, Pitt’s Jackie stands out (in the land of the blind, the one one-eyed man and all that).

Pitt appears to be playing a character Dominik didn’t bother to write. With regular background hints at political parallels with speeches by G W Bush and Barack Obama droning behind the action we are I think invited to see Jackie as just an utterly ruthless, highly efficient business man: sort of a Rent-a-kill kind of guy. Kill all the bugs and be on the safe side. Jackie is commissioned by a kind of corporate flunky called Driver (no I’m not making this up) who keeps trying to negotiate a reduction in price. The American way.

For absolutely no discernible reason, unless to try to rub off a bit of Sopranos believability on this crap, James Gandolfino rolls up to do one of the hits. He is permanently drunk, impotent and thick; and lachrymosely and pathetically bemoaning his long-suffering wife’s desire for a divorce – no great surprise to us. Eventually he’s too pissed to do the job so it falls to Jackie to clear up the loose ends. And even then his duplicitous hirers try to screw him on price.

Dominik then tries a last gasp philosophical political twist that would have been a very interesting idea had he even begun to write a film and characters that could make it remotely convincing.

Killing Them Softly is a well shot, brilliantly edited movie full of powerful downbeat tone and atmosphere: but it is conceptually vapid; morally bankrupt – and I mean the aesthetic concept of the film not its characters’ behaviour – and perilously close to pornographic in its aesthetic relish at the representation of violence.

It is so disappointing to see Brad Pitt (he produced as well) associated with this meretricious tosh.

That said I appear to be in a minority of one critically on this one – with Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian waxing lyrical with five stars. In yer dreams Pete.

Leave a Reply