Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we take a look at Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012). [Caution: Spoilers Ahead].
Killing Them Softly
- Rotten Tomatoes: 73% (226 critics) | 44% (121,417 user ratings)
- Metacritic: 64 (42 critics) | 6.1/10 (290 user ratings)
- IMDb: 6.2/10 (128,652 user ratings)
- Letterboxd: 3.3/5 (27,687 user ratings)
- CinemaScore: F
CinemaScore is a company that gauges initial reactions to newly released films. Representatives in major cities will distribute survey cards to audiences on the opening night of a movie. From this, they calculate a letter rating to represent opening day audience reception. In the history of CinemaScore (the company was founded in 1979), 21 films have received the lowest possible rating.
Of these films, the F score that baffles me the most is Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. I remember seeing the film in theaters in 2012, and I liked it quite a bit. This was before I was aware of Dominik. I would later discover The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film which I consider something of a masterpiece. After watching Killing Them Softly again, I think Dominik is doing something unique and truly great.
Did audiences get Killing Them Softly wrong? I’m going to spoil it here: I certainly think so. But that is not much of a surprise. Despite the CinemaScore and low Rotten Tomatoes user score, there is critical and audience appreciation for the film. As such, this article is going to attempt to answer the question as to why audiences would be compelled to rate the film on F on opening weekend. In the process, I will provide my own review of the film.
Given that CinemaScore polls opening night audiences, the assumption is that they are getting ratings from a film’s target audience. Films with very targeted audiences, like faith-based films and family films, often do very well on CinemaScore. More divisive genres, like horror and comedy, can get mixed results. Generally speaking, films that promise their target audience a specific genre experience and follow through on that promise with an adequate amount of spectacle and excitement get a positive CinemaScore rating.
Killing Them Softly looks like a generic mobster film. The trailer for the film highlights pretty much every exciting moment, showing off stunts with cars and scenes with violent gangster activity. For one, this does not leave much for the film to provide in terms of exciting action, as it is all evident in the trailer. Secondly, the energy of this trailer promises a fast-paced crime thriller that Killing Them Softly cannot provide, because the film is a rather deliberately paced and ruminative experience.
So the easy answer to the F score is misleading marketing. But let’s unpack this some more. Dominik’s film may at times appear like a conventional mob movie, but most of the experience of watching involves grappling with a different sort of crime film. As far as I can tell, there are three major sticking points that could drive someone to give Killing Them Softly an F rating: morally ugly characters, telegraphed political undertones (which are mostly just overtones, to be honest), and unbalanced storytelling. My argument here is that these three criticisms are both valid and are key to why this film is so great.
Now, I am not here to defend crass, misogynistic characters. However, Killing Them Softly depicts this brand of character in a specific, novel way which I think benefits the film. For one, Dominik is toying with an archetype of noir and crime fiction. James Gandolfini is essentially playing a cliched crime film character who has lived past his glory days and is now merely sad and empty. His heavy drinking, womanizing, and open misogyny is something that may have been celebrated during his criminal heyday. But Jackie (Brad Pitt) has no patience for it (as aggressive as he, too, is to the sex worker character). Just as an earlier era of crime film would support a casual misogyny that would not fly today, Gandolfini exercises a misogyny he may have at one time gotten away with but in 2008 causes him to return to prison.
The characters in this film live in a criminal underbelly that has been depicted on screen countless times. They live that seedy lifestyle and embody its nastier tendencies, granted to differing degrees, but, unlike other crime films, they are not celebrated for it. This world is not depicted in any sensationalized way. These people are merely shown as scummy and gross. They are mobsters without a Scorsese to make them look cool and their lives glamorous.
Morally absent characters are nothing new to film, either, and some films are enjoyable specifically because of their immoral characters. But in this case, the severity of these characters’ abhorrent dialogue and the lack of glamor given to their world could be an easy turn off for some viewers. Very early in the film, Ben Mendelsohn’s character says a throwaway line about rape that is so shockingly callous that it has the power to turn a viewer in an instant. Yet there is a pathetic nature to his character, particularly when it comes to women, that is telling. He brags about sexual exploits in a way that is clearly posturing and untrue. His purported dominance over women is a feint, an attempt to fit into the hyper-masculine environment in which he works.
These characters are fascinating not because of what they say or what they do, but because of what they represent. Dominik takes the masculine cliches of the crime genre and replicates them with an added layer of realism. What we are given looks ugly by design. The criminals are not heroes or aspirational figures. They are not charming or charismatic. They are sad and, in the most generous reading, pitiful.
So if the characters are unlikable, at least the plot has a pep in its step, an energy reminiscent of Scorsese’s gangster films at their best, right? Well, not quite. Killing Them Softly certainly has tense and exciting sequences. But the film has a keyed-down mood that mostly evades spectacle. There are gloriously directed sequences, of course, like the initial heist and the assassination of Markie. But most of the film consists of pairs of characters talking about the struggles underlying their current job. This oscillation of energy from violent highs and talky lows is another reason why a viewer may lose interest in the film. It also makes it easy for someone to criticize the film for being narratively lumpy.
But I would be hard pressed to call the narrative uneven. In his films, Dominik shows a measured pace that is executed down to the timing of individual edits (credit to editor Brian A. Kates on this, as well). The pace of that heist scene, for example, is cut to perfection, with each edit slowly enhancing the tension. Not to mention the nonchalant abruptness of the film’s ending, or the abrupt interruptions caused by the edits during the film’s opening credits.
The film does oscillate in a rhythm that feels unorthodox, but I think that adds a sort of mundane quality to the proceedings that fits well with the film’s themes. There are more traditional crime film elements to the narrative, but there are also scenes where characters do nothing more than sit and discuss how they are holding up. It is a tension Dominik is playing with that does slow the film down, but it also makes the film unique on a generic level.
Then again, this unique take on genre also lends itself to the third major criticism I can see in the film. One element of the film which some critics took umbrage with was its political signaling. Chistopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic, wrote that “Dominik overreaches somewhat in his bid for topicality [with his political inclusions] … their deployment could have been pared down considerably.” A.O. Scott at The New York Times called the over-laying of political speeches “a clumsy device, a feint toward significance that nothing else in the movie earns.” Roger Ebert saw the addition of recession-era concerns into this bloody world of organized crime to be facile.
These critics aren’t necessarily wrong. The cynical political themes are overtly placed into this cynical crime narrative, which can be understandably eye-roll inducing. It feels like overkill when your opening credits sequence ends with a shot of side-by-side political billboards for the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
But there is something to scoring the finale of the heist with George W. Bush’s September 24, 2008 address to the nation on the economic collapse and bank bailout legislation. It is an intriguing juxtaposition with Frankie’s (Scoot McNairy) final line as he fleeces a roomful of mob bosses of their cash: “It’s only money.” It is a fairly brilliant button to the sequence.
What is more intriguing is how easily ignored these political soundbites are. Until the very end of the film, none of these characters seem too concerned with politics. They do not address the soundbites they are hearing. All the same, the economic recession is impacting their own illicit business affairs. They are struggling in a way that President Bush cannot solve—Frankie even says he’d rather be dead or in jail than continue living in his current financial situation. At the same time, none of them feel any sort of optimism toward then Senator Barack Obama, whose resounding call for hope and change echo over and over throughout the film.
In this sense, Killing Them Softly is something of an apolitical political film (or, at the very least, an apathetic political film), which is a fascinating concept. The political soundbites may be fore-fronted, telegraphed. But they are not truly brought to the fore within the story world until the end of the film, at which time it becomes clear just how cycnically apolitical this film really is. Pitt’s final monologue—and, indeed, his perfectly punctuated final line—is a scathing indictment of capitalist ideology, one which transcends political boundaries in order to illuminate a fraught, nearsighted system.
Ultimately, the film is a bitter deconstruction. It willingly saps the fun out of the gangster genre and adds a healthy serving of apathetic political examination on top. Add to this a deliberate pace and a dialed down performance from Pitt, and you have an easily unlikable film dressed in sheep’s clothing. So is it a surprise that Killing Them Softly rubbed early audiences the wrong way? Not really. But I would argue the film has a lot of intriguing, incisive thoughts in its head. Dominik crafts gorgeous sequences. The ensemble cast is stacked and are giving wonderfully understated performances. And in some ways the apathetic tone feels just as relevant in the context of widespread bipartisan political apathy during the 2016 presidential election as it does when situated within the contexts of the 2008 and 2012 elections.
If anything about this film sounds interesting, then I would recommend giving it a chance. As of this writing, Killing Them Softly is available on Netflix.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)