‘America I have given you all and now I’m nothing’ – Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg caught on pretty early, to the fact that America was a place that had fast become a superpower, but it’s people weren’t playing along. Andrew Dominik’s new film, ‘Killing Them Softly’, is a gritty, guts ‘n’ all, modern take on the underworld of American crime and the fall of a nation.
Set in an unnamed East coast town – probably Boston due to the strong accent from protagonist Frankie (Scoot McNairy) – the story kicks off with a couple of small-time crooks Frankie and Russell, the latter a sweaty, disgusting junkie that we are immediately supposed to detach ourselves from. They are being set up on a job to stick up a poker game by their contractor, ‘Squirrel’. These games are hosted by Markie Trattman, (Ray Liotta) and one recently got held-up. Unknowingly to the big-time players in attendance, this was Trattman’s doing, he pocketed the money and never got busted. These games are quite a regular occurrence, and a few months down the line, Trattman’s secret is revealed. With Trattman now the immediate suspect, the idea of busting his poker games now becomes wide open for all manner of small-time crooks.
KTS is set sometime around the presidential election of 2008, with interlaced billboard shots, tv shows and radio broadcast snippets decorating the film. Yet stylistically this film looks like the 1970’s. Cadillacs, Capris and old beat up bars. The characters sport slimy faces and greased back hair, dirty parkas and leather jackets. Even Brad Pitt’s character ‘Jackie Cogan’ is a gentle, but obviously evil modern-day cowboy. Jackie’s unbuttoned shirt, gold rings, tinted sunglasses and goatee are straight from a time where disco, rock ‘n’ roll and sleaziness would fit right in. This touch may be a nod to the 70’s novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, upon which this film was based, it might also be a another sentiment of the careless America that does what it wants. Either way, it paints a bleak picture of the greasy, dirty underground life of small-town crooks.
Dominik mastered diegetic sound perfectly in KTS. In a scene where two cars are meeting each other, one car is parked up, with the radio sounding out an election debate about the economy. As we see and hear this, a second car slowly creeps into the frame, also with the same radio station on. For a few seconds, the sounds play simultaneously, only slightly out of sync, then the first car turns the radio off and the second car continues the broadcast. This has to be seen – and heard – to be appreciated! This unique use of sound is continued throughout the production, including mumbling background conversations being slightly louder than they should be to create a sense of ultimate realism.
A hidden gem in this film is James Gandolfini’s role as ‘New York Mickey’, an alcoholic, delusional sex addict who seems intensely afraid and jealous of a vaguely mentioned wife or girlfriend figure. Mickey is another character we love to hate, and just as he embodies the classic male afraid of a woman’s success and empowerment; he equally displays a reflection of America’s downfall due to man’s weakness of greed and power.
This ultra-realist, gritty crime film is a fresh take on the over-cooked gangster genre; just make sure you get the chance to see this one while it’s still in cinemas.