In Killing Them Softly, those citizens who believe in “America the Beautiful” are soft, meek, and doomed. Andrew Dominik’s brutally pessimistic vision of modern American capitalism resonates with anger from the very beginning, spraying its raging ideology across the frame in sharp flashes of violence and stylized dialogue sequences. While it lacks the poetry and melancholy of Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly feels like a spiritual cousin to that masterful Western. Both deal with the subject of economic Manifest Destiny, and in this particular Gangster universe, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps has never been so punishing and filthy.
An opening crescendo of white noise, radio banter (the Obama/McCain 2008 election is a didactic framing device), and visual starkness establishes a dilapidated world constantly moving in and out of consciousness. The Great Recession is in full swing, and low-level thugs like Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are forced to get creative in order to make ends meet. The two are contracted to rob a high-stakes card game by another gangster, and the stickup creates a ripple of economic uncertainty in the underworld arena. Enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to eliminate the guilty parties and restore confidence.
Killing Them Softly isn’t subtle in the way it connects the American government to the mob higher-ups Jackie is forced to negotiate with (via middleman Richard Jenkins). The plot’s Red tape, slow decision making, and mishandlings are all deeply entrenched in the film’s political agenda. The brilliant grey/black/brown color scheme and vintage 70s mise-en-scene (cars, clothing, lingo) connect our present with a past moment in American history equally maligned with economic and political duress. The strategically placed slow motion shots only heighten this spatial overlap, like the dripping sweat on Russell’s brow or the droplet of rain kissing a bullet casing from Jackie’s 45. Nostalgia for the past and hope for the future are equally contemptible offenses, and that’s a scary thought.
Walter Salles’s long-gestating On the Road proffers a far more benign version of American angst, regurgitating into a coming-of-age slog the Westward travails of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) so beloved in Jack Kerouac’s novel. Between stunning wide shots of various countryside settings, the film crams the viewer inside a car with beatnik assholes for what feels like a century in the cinema of slow. There’s no escape from Kristen Stewart’s smirking Marylou or Garrett Hedlund’s brute Dean Moriarty, only the suffering that comes with listening to their hilariously awful attempts at emotional complexity.
While each major performance is atrocious in its own way (especially Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen), Salles’s consistently inert sense of pacing confirms On the Road as a soulless adaptation, lacking the dangerous allure of Kerouac’s book. Like the rambling drunk father Dean searches for throughout the film, On the Road feels perpetually lost, unaware of how important it could have been. Even worse, the film’s trite look at sexual liberation and creative freedom only glosses the surface of what it means to gain life experience in sudden, strong bursts of time.