Killing Them Softly (2012), directed by Andrew Dominik

If the world, and the USA in particular, is really as bleak and unrelenting a place as Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly argues it is, then maybe dying in a beautiful slow-motion hail of bullets is the best we can ask for.

Because there seems to be little else to strive for. If you’re the one doing the killing you’ll likely end up, at best, a bitter, cold man without belief in anything aside from the bottom line, or, at worst, an alcoholic, pathetic mess who can’t even perform his macabre tasks anymore. Not because he doesn’t want to, but because he actually can’t.

Or you’re a “kid” (my grandfather always hated that common usage of the word. “They’re not baby goats!” he would say) who doesn’t know any better and will likely mess up and get killed.

Or you’re legit, or at least appear legit, and you hire these other types to do your dirty work for you.

This is the world of Killing Them Softly, which takes place during the 2008 presidential election in a post-Katrina New Orleans. It is a gangster film, but is intended to be one of its time and place, offering a larger, and often heavy-handed, social commentary on the state of the union.

Dominik is a talented director, there is no question of that. Chopper (pronounced “chapurr”) is a messy, energetic film and 2007′s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an under-appreciated masterpiece.

Killing Them Softly is a far cry from the subtle touch of Jesse James, but there is a strange, raw beauty in its graphic violence and grim presentation. A few people left the cinema during the screening I attended, and I can’t really blame them. I think they missed out on an interesting film, but it is a trying bit of cinema.

Each killing in the movie is played out with near-operatic grandiosity, especially the death of Markie (Ray Liotta), captured in extreme slow-motion and intricate, grisly beauty. There is no sugarcoating the blood these characters wallow in, no looking away.

There is little emotion in this film, just pessimistic observations and violence. Characters never say anything to reveal emotion, if they have any. To admit weakness is “embarrassing,” even when it’s in the face of violent death. This is a world where you have to stay sharp and fight dirty to get ahead.

Honestly, the day after seeing it, I’m still digesting just what Killing Them Softly is and what it’s trying to say. It’s an odd mix of elements at play. On one hand it’s beautifully filmed. Each frame is its own little masterpiece and the talent we all know Dominik possesses, as an overtly cinematic director, is evident throughout.

It’s also filled with stellar performances, particularly James Gandolfini as a washed up and burnt out hit man and Scoot McNairy as the young, out-of-his-depth Frankie (McNairy’s voice has a wonderful quality to it that I’ve been trying to imitate all day). It has wonderful, vignette-type scenes that linger and entrance. It is a compelling film to watch.

On the other hand, what does the film as a whole leave us with? It is the story of one particular incident in the regular lives of American gangsters. It has no grandiose view of the world of crime, a la The Godfather or GoodFellas. It isn’t particularly a character study. What comment it does make is both simplistic and grim.

I left the cinema feeling like I had just viewed something stunning and shocking, but I still don’t understand what I was supposed to take away from it. Certainly not pure entertainment, it’s too “arty” and cynical for that. It offers a vision of an every man for himself America, not a nation, but a “business,” says Brad Pitt’s character. That’s hard to cheer for.

As a social commentary I think it falls short because surely the lives of these characters are not the norm in America. For instance, I have used the masculine throughout all of this because, as best I can remember, there is only one woman in Killing Them Softly, and her character’s name is “Hooker.” This is a world of lonely, addicted, violent men who live in isolation from this “America” the film is so eager to comment on. How can they speak for the whole when they only represent the lowest?

Just like the film, I have no answers. I didn’t love Killing Them Softly because, well, how could you? It’s like trying to love a rattlesnake. But I do respect it, for its craftsmanship, for its gall and for the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I may want to. I’m sure I will continue to chew it over some more. Then I might go pet some kittens or listen to some gospel music or something, anything, to bring a little cheer back to my life.

Killing Them Softly is in cinemas now.