Sep 24

Killing Them Softly | Film Review

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Five years have passed since Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt united for the magnificent Western drama The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford; a lyrical, revisionist take on what by all accounts had become an American legend. It was gorgeous, poetic and fell flat on it’s on its face at the box-office. The studio simply had no idea how to go about pitching it and it was left to die, the genius gone unsung. Now Dominik has picked himself up, teamed up with Mr Pitt once again and returned to a far more recent moment of American history; the economic downturn viewed through the prism of organised crime. Whilst not hitting the heights of their previous collaboration they have crafted a stark, powerful take on a genre that we think we know inside out and give it an astonishingly contemporary sheen.

It’s 2008. The economy is crumbling, Obama and McCain are gathering their supporters and two clueless street hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are roped into a raid on a mob protected card game. It’s run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who has already escaped punishment from criminal overlords for organising a heist on his own games. The plan is for Markie to take the fall for the raid second time round but due to the duo’s own incompetence they are soon pursued by Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a hitman sent to exact justice and restore order.  He has a very specific work ethic; he likes to keep his distance from his targets in order to avoid emotions getting in the way. He refers to this as ‘killing them softly.’ He decides to hire old colleague Mickey Finn (James Gandolfini) to help him adhere to this method, yet this proves to prove more challenging than he can imagine.

Dominik is working from a 1974 novel entitled Cogan’s Trade penned by George V. Higgins. The film retains a stark, minimalist visual tone that recalls the high watermark crime films of the seventies such as The French Connection and Scorpio. It’s a story that takes place in vacant lots, motel rooms and car parks bathed in grey, cold light. It is an environment that feels left behind by the modern world and that we don’t often see in mainstream American cinema. In certain shots, the desolate wasteland resembles something out of a sci-fi apocalyptic vision. Dominik keeps his directorial flourishes to a minimum favouring stationary camera angles and carefully choreographed tracking shots to balletic displays of violence though he does concede to one hauntingly beautiful shootout in the rainfall. Not that any of it is pretty; this is a film where death and violence is an ugly, horrific spectacle. Dominik contrasts such moments perfectly with an uncanny feel for the timing and pitch of each individual scene. His prowess as a writer is the primary one on display though. The action is driven by lengthy, dialogue heavy scenes where in the characters confront the unpleasantness and banal mundanity of their profession. The major factor of the adaptation is the running references to the economic meltdown of the time and the then optimistic promises of the Obama administration. Speeches and news broadcasts that have barely had time to pass into history seep through radio and television broadcasts in the background of crucial scenes.  This does come close to becoming repetitive and forceful yet it instils the narrative with a moral backbone that many of its characters lack and forms a crucial part of what elevates the film from being a run of the mill gangster drama to a scathing critique of capitalist greed. The will of the powerful is broken, and it is left for the people on street level to pick up the pieces and clear up the mess.

Gangsters and hitmen tend to be the sort of characters that are romanticized in the majority of crime cinema that we are exposed to so it’s tremendously fresh to see them presented as repellent, incompetent bringers of their own fates. Pitt is a performer who seems to be getting better and better with age and here Dominik has coaxed another career best from him.  His Jackie Cogan may appear more suave and charming than his counterparts; he strolls onto screen with slicked back hair, a leather jacket and shades to die for and to the sounds of Johnny Cash yet he is thoroughly amoral and brutal.  Scenes where he quietly threatens a local hood at a bar whilst contemplating the hypocrisy of America’s founding fathers positively throb with underlying menace.  He is simply an electrifying presence. McNairy and Mendelsohn excel at making two seemingly irredeemable screw-ups sympathetic for the majority of the running time. If there’s one performance that steals the film however, it’s Gandolfini. Shuffling onto screen with a hangdog expression, immovable sunglasses and the weight of the world on his shoulders, the onetime Tony Soprano gives a tour de force presenting a onetime respected New York mobster as a shambling, train wreck of a man drowning in a sea of alcohol and prostitutes. Scenes where he rails against the younger generation whilst exhibiting the excess and degradation that a life of crime has inflicted upon him echo with grim, comic tragedy that relish in the destruction of typically macho, masculine persona. As with past films of Dominik’s there are virtually no female characters to speak of and when they are spoken of it’s in the most deplorable ways imaginable. I don’t think it’s a fault on his part but rather an apt reflection of a thuggishly brutal world were desperate men struggle to climb over one another to stay afloat.

Killing Them Softly may come on quite strong at moments but it ultimately emerges as refreshingly cynical, relevant thriller that sticks to its guns right through to its brutally honest final line. Hopefully on the basis of this, we will not have to wait so long for Dominik’s next effort.