It seems Andrew Dominik’s two Brad Pitt films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly, are destined to be no more than footnotes in American film culture. It’s a bummer. Jesse James made only 4 million dollars domestically, while Killing Them Softly made only 7 million its opening weekend. The failure of these films to find more of an audience is remarkable, especially since they feature one of Hollywood’s most photogenic and recognizable men as the lead and were not badly reviewed. (Perhaps they don’t like the goatee/mustache combo Pitt sports in each?) Despite these poor performances, I believe Dominik has made two of the best “violent” films of the last decade. The heavy dread of death which Dominik manages to elicit is almost cleansing after so many other depictions of careless human dispatch. The body counts are refreshingly low, and each death is meant to be felt.
In most violent films you’re allowed, if not encouraged, to forget a character after he dies. But Dominik works against that coarse amnesia, even going so far as to follow the remains. In Jesse James, one man’s naked corpse is thrown into a snowy ditch, the camera lingering on his bluing skin amid the whiteness. Near the end, the titular gunslinger’s form is literally put on ice and displayed for ghoulish fascination and profit. In Killing Them Softly, we watch the internment of two victims in a morgue, where they are toe-tagged and slid into shiny silver walls. Perhaps most filmmakers would like to do something like this, but feel they don’t have the story time to do so. Dominik makes the time.
I wonder with a sick heart if audiences might have welcomed this type of approach if Dominik had picked more likable, “justified” characters to depict. I’m glad he didn’t. There are enough righteous gunmen—you might call them “designated killers”—who get free passes to maim and murder if a blood tie has been kidnapped/raped/tortured, the country’s safety is threatened, or if their quarry is neon vile with a foreign accent. Ripped, ferocious avatars for the audience, they are the player ones who get to avenge their formulaic injustices in the most vicious ways, decorating screens balloons-and-confetti-style with blood, fire, and noise. But in Dominik’s films, the circumstances are mostly absurd, brought about by greed or sycophantism, the killing and dying done by men who are often slimy, cruel, and dishonorable. But when they are shot through the skull at close range or when their chests are blown open by pump shotguns and they whimper and gurgle, the pathos is real. Before they are killed, they live and breathe. They are people.
In addition to the qualities mentioned above, the two films share first-rate cinematography and sound design, superlative ensembles, and two strong performances from Pitt. They are very different films. Clocking in at almost three hours, Jesse James has a mythic, mesmeric (some claim somnolent) grandeur, while Killing Them Softly is compact, punchy.
Jesse James is a dirge, a moaning depiction of obsession and hero worship. The visuals supplied by Roger Deakins and score by Nick Cave work seamlessly to create a strange, lush, melancholy dream of the past. Casey Affleck owns his role as Robert Ford, the man who infiltrates the James gang just before its dissolution and gains access to Jesse James as he succumbs to the paranoia and misery of life as a hunted man. Their relationship alone makes me like the film, because it is so odd and uncomfortable and unclassifiable. Does Jesse James keep Ford around to determine his viability as a threat, or does he like to loyal pet? Or does he see all, and decide it is right that Ford should kill him? The questions drift and echo and you are allowed to wonder. Dominik has the taste not to supply the answer.
Killing Them Softly, the story of a mob enforcer’s efforts to find those responsible for a robbery at an illegal poker game, is the weaker film for two clear reasons: the use of music and the preponderance of references to the 2008 election. In the first case, Dominik forgoes any traditional scoring and uses pre-existing songs instead, often using music that rings just a little too obvious in any active filmgoer’s mind. Pitt, as the killer and enforcer Jackie Cogan, enters the film to the strains of Johhny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” When one of the robbers shoots up, the sleepy guitars of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” chug-chug-chug-chug into life. The real sin of the film, though, is the absolute blasting of the viewer with audio and visual cues meant to connect the political and criminal spheres. As these hoods go in and out of bars and cars, Obama, McCain, and Bush are all heard uttering their empty promises and pat phrases, to the point where Dominik isn’t just beating the drum, but punching his fist through the drumhead.
Still, the film features brutally funny and depressing dialogue, and a layered vision of the mob that does, as Dominik knows all too well, smack of workaday life. How badly a man should be beaten, the tendency of man to “get touchy-feely” if you execute him at close range, the cost of an outsourced hitman’s plane ticket—these matters are all discussed with the same tired obligation as expense accounts and overtime hours. It’s all such a drag. In brief instances you see the weight of all the desperation, greed, and deceit weighing on Pitt’s character, and when it comes to getting his money at the end of the film, he lets fly a barrage of hard, angry sentences about America that are as thrilling and satisfying as any action scene I’ve ever witnessed. Killing Them Softly is so satisfyingly bitter that you almost miss the venom dissipating in your veins once you’ve left the theater.
Other recent films have treated violence with a similar gravity to what I’ve described here. Some even won Oscars and topped the box office, but the ratio is still so lopsided. Expendables 3 will be here soon enough, or Taken 3. The good guys will kill again. But maybe try out one of Dominik’s films. Drift into the limbo, where no one really deserves it, but it comes anyway. Feel that feeling. “You made a mistake,” Jackie Cogan repeats to a man he’ll be killing soon, and the camera hangs on his face, his lip quivering as he digests this. He made a mistake and now he’s going to die. He’s not a bad guy, but he made a mistake. When he finally does die, it’s so sudden, so final, and you feel something. You feel something.