Laura Mulvey once declared war on pleasure. She observed that criticism takes pleasure in what it critiques. Specifically, feminist criticism of phallocentric cinema, but it's no less true in general. Her call for the cinematic destruction of pleasure is a fascinating experiment, but takes a bit too seriously, I think, the psychoanalytic idea that there is one libido, and it is male. It's good for necessary apocalyptic pronouncements of the maleness of the universe, but I don't really think it's true. However, the notion that criticism is inherently complicit by virtue of the enjoyment that makes it possible, I've taken as a given until now. My writing on film has often been excessive in carrying out this principle, overprocessing pleasure into negative pleasure through denial. It is a kind of egomania. I anxiously sought anything I could eviscerate, but I enjoyed myself in the theater, for the most part.
Once I got past the initial dry chuckles of watching petty criminals carry out a completely idiotic robbery, and the sledgehammer-subtle snippits of Obama and Bush speeches on the financial crisis, there was nothing fun about Killing Them Softly. Nor was there anything passably benign; it became actively unpleasant to watch, and not in a meaningful way. It was at once the expression and antithesis of Mulvey's cinematic ideal: devoid of pleasure and unremittingly male. The latter is true literally (it fails the Bechdel test spectacularly), but also in that the attitude the film takes up in relation to the world is a very particular form of masculinity.
In Peep Show, David Mitchell's character describes porn as "dead eyed men fucking dead eyed women in a desperate world of pain." Killing Them Softly is dead eyed men killing dead eyed men in a desperate world of pain. Except--and here is its particularity--it's not desperate. There is no urgency. The pervasive, unwavering affect of this world is what would be the result of a social experiment: what if a group of straight men were stuck in a locked room together with no television or alcohol? All the characteristic defenses are here: this special kind of dullness, in which there is no emotional register, and in which visual phenomena, however gruesome, hold a numbing fascination.
To the camera, that is. I was either bored and fidgeting or uncomfortable and fidgeting. Uncomfortable when a man gets beaten half to death, and bored by everything else. These kinds of discomforts are exactly what the film's aesthetic defends against. Indeed, the men's reactions toward each other are boredom or discomfort. There is one loving relationship, between the two dunces that Pitt is after. One of them picks up the other at the airport, and upon seeing the Australian's characteristic grease and filth, he says "you dirty dog!" It's sweet, but the camera must view it from very far away, and they must die. Otherwise, only boredom and discomfort. When the robbers hold up a high-stakes card game, they're uncomfortable, and the jaded card players, bored. The men nonengage with each other in the same way the film nonengages with its subjects. In conversation they maintain such a disinterest in each other, filmed so disinterestedly, that I can't help but be disinterested.
What does hold interest to uncomfortable straight men trying not to look at each other is violence. The camera gives it to us unabridged, and because sometimes that's not enough, also in slow motion. The more intense, the more it is slowed, so that its newtonian characteristics may be seen, so that it may be aestheticized like nature photography--as arrangements of form and color. In this mechanism, which is characteristic of the film's gaze, disturbance is not dealt with by looking away or by feeling an emotional supplement, but deadened by looking so intensely that it cannot be seen.
Judging from the title's place in a line of dialogue--"I like to kill them softly, from a distance"--this distancing is probably the point, but after about an hour of it, I had to leave.
In part, it was the sound design. When Brad Pitt sat down with… hm, I actually didn't know what his role or name was--anyway they're in a restaurant with soft classical music with all the warmth taken out of it, and my fidgeting escalated to code red and I found it difficult to look at the screen or listen to the words coming out of their mouths. The theater was empty besides my dad and I, but I had to work up courage for a few minutes to ask him "do you want to stay?" He said no, not really, but he didn't get up and so neither did I, yet. We sat through five minutes of Pitt shooting someone in the head in slow motion, then we left.
At home I kept thinking "oh god," hopeful for some catharsis now that I wasn't stuck in that theater anymore. But instead everything remained dull. The movie's pointlessly bleak outlook seemed to have infected me. Nothing held any pleasure. I writhed around in bed trying to write about it, getting sick of thinking about it, and trying to distract myself from it, finally turning to My So-Called Life, which I had stayed up until 5 AM the previous night with. There, Brad Pitt was a hunk to fantasize about, rather than the kind of pretensious star who only stars in "important" movies like that which I had fled. But not even that show, which had mesmerized me for many hours before, could hold my attention or elicit any emotion. I had a headache. Things were happening on the screen, but it was as if somewhere in front of the screen, it was still dead-eyed men killing dead-eyed men. Everything was just visual phenomena. All that I could do was sit through it, until, eventually, it all began to mean something again.