There’s a scene in “Killing Them Softly” where Brad Pitt, playing Mafia enforcer Jackie Cogan, drives up alongside a car driven by a suspect gambling den operator (Ray Liotta) and pumps a few bullets into him. Here, and only here, director Andrew Dominik slows the film down to the extent that a couple of seconds play out over a couple of minutes, as glass shatters, hot lead flies and blood spurts in the most languid, almost erotic way.
Not that there’s any particular reason to do so: It’s a fetishizing of violence that’s troubling in its sheer blissful pointlessness. Including the murder is justified: It’s an integral part of the story. Showing it graphically may also be: You certainly want the viewer to experience the shock of the bloodletting. But stretching it out endlessly for every second of screen time you can wring from it is pathological. And of course — par the mentor, Quentin T. — there’s an ironic pop song, Ketty Lester’s 1962 hit “Love Letters,” playing as the gore flows.
You can look at a film such as “Fallen Angels,” where Wong Kar-wai plays with camera speeds to suggest the time-stopping experience of falling in love with someone. You could also look at something like “The Matrix,” where the use of “bullet time” was not just a gimmick, but illustrated how enlightened hero Neo had literally transcended the laws of time and space. But Dominik’s film reveals no narrative or artistic reason to go slo-mo for this killing other than that’s what movies do nowadays: wallow in the carnage.
I don’t mean to pick on “Killing Me Softly,” but this scene was sufficiently jarring to take me out of the story and make me wonder about the director’s aesthetic choices.
For the most part, Dominik’s movie is just another post-Tarantino gangster gab-fest, full of great character actors — Liotta, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins — and a star turn from Brad Pitt. Based on a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, the story involves a robbery by a couple of bumbling amateurs on a mob-protected gambling den in New Orleans, and the vengeance meted out.
This all plays over a backdrop of election-year rhetoric from 2008 blaring on TVs and radios, a Robert Altman-esque tactic which adds an ironic layer to the proceedings. We hear Dubya commenting on the Wall St. bailout, saying, “Today we take decisive action … not what we want to do, but what we must do to restore confidence in our financial system,” which is pretty much exactly how Cogan feels as he goes around whacking people so that gamblers will feel safe again.
Much like in his last film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Dominik seeks to engage with genre filmmaking, but the suspense and thrills of the heist flick slowly dissipate into stasis and indulgent monologues, some of which hit home, some of which don’t. Typical is Gandolfini’s character, a hit man turned alcoholic who has several swerving conversations with Pitt before revealing he’s washed up, and can’t do the hit. He just sort of disappears from the movie, and pretty much everything else winds down in a similarly unsatisfying way.