Killing Them Softly, 2012.
Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik.
Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Richard Jenkins, Max Casella and Sam Shepard.
A professional enforcer investigates a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game.
Killing Them Softly, the long gestating adaptation of George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, marks the third film of Andrew Dominik, and his second with Brad Pitt, who also produces here. It’s only Dominik’s third film since his debut 12 years ago, and his first in 5 years. Their first collaboration, the magnificent ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’, remains an underappreciated masterpiece in dire need of reappraisal. When one considers the well documented troubles faced by that production, not least the lengthy wrangle with Warner Bros during the editing process, his absence is not such a surprise. But here he is, and in sharp, strong form.
The film follows a group of characters, all revolving around the opportunistic robbery of a Mobster’s card game, run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) by two low-level criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, both excellent) set to the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential Election and economic downturn. In the aftermath of the heist, hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to root out the problem, but seems more interested in pinning the blame on the heavily-suspected Trattman, regardless of his innocence.
In many respects Killing Them Softly could be considered a step down from Jesse James..., not necessarily in quality, but in terms of scale and ambition the films can hardly compare. One may have reasonably expected a post-Jesse James... Dominik to deliver another epic, but Killing Them Softly couldn’t be further from that. It’s short, only 90 minutes in fact, and deliberately compact. Where Jesse James... was brooding and melancholic, Killing Them Softly is hard and cynical. A better comparison would be with Dominik’s first film, the violent, brilliant Chopper - a comment on infamy and the media’s obsession with violence and criminality that managed to be at once brutal and very, very funny. That same sense of humour, largely absent from the more solemn Jesse James... makes a return here, and for such a dark film it’s surprising how funny it can be. Dominik’s script is sharp yet realistic, littered with the kind of blue humour you’d expect from these characters. The humour may often be blacker than black, but it’s a welcome respite to what could have otherwise veered into the territory of the purely nasty. And it is nasty. The violence is at times genuinely shocking, particularly in a scene involving Ray Liotta’s Markie that may be the most terrifying scene of violence since Drive’s elevator scene.
Plot-wise, the film meanders, in a way that some could find off-putting. Rather than sticking to one plot strand until it’s conclusion, Dominik opts for a series of tableaus with the aim of showing every level of the situation, while allowing some developments to happen off-screen. It may perhaps remove some of the tension, but it also gives to us a collection of well-developed characters, played superbly by the note-perfect cast, best of all James Gandolfini’s shambolic, drunk contract killer, brought in to make a hit, but instead spending the time drinking and enjoying the local prostitutes, mourning his terminal marriage. The character is tragic, funny and delivered with a heavy dose of pathos; a sort of low-life Willy Loman, and his few scenes are among the best in the film. This ensemble style also serves as an explanation for the change of title, from Cogan’s Trade to Killing Them Softly. This is not a film about Jackie Cogan. Indeed, his first appearance comes over half an hour into the film. It is a film about criminality, and the parallels between ‘legitimate’ business and the politics of the criminal hierarchy.
The political side to the film can be a problem. The parallels made between the situation in the criminal underworld to the US economy are welcome, and for the most part ring true, but it can become wearing to hear incumbent president Bush, or candidate Barack Obama on the radio or television in near enough every other scene. The same comparisons could easily have been made with far less of a heavy hand, and it’s a shame coming from a director like Dominik, when he’s shown such subtlety with subtext in the past. It feels as though the point is simply being rammed home, when he could have removed all recession references bar the eerie, disorientating opening credits, and the phenomenal, blistering final scene between Pitt and Richard Jenkins management type, credited only as driver, and still had the same effect. The final scene is by far the most effective scene in the film, and renders all previous uses of contemporary political rhetoric largely pointless.
Yet at the same time, it feels unfair to criticise a film that so boldly takes on our current economic situation, when political film has been largely absent from Hollywood in recent years. When the only alternative is Jay Roach’s The Campaign, it’s clear that we need to embrace any attempt at political commentary in cinema, however flawed it may be. Take it as a companion piece to last year’s overlooked The Ides Of March. Both cynical, dour pieces, and both perhaps a little up-front in their message, but the important thing is that they have a message. How many major studio pictures can you say the same of?
Despite some failings, Killing Them Softly remains an example of bold, intelligent filmmaking. Dominik is quickly (or rather slowly) establishing himself as an auteur of some note, and we can only hope that his Malick-esque waiting periods between films don’t continue. What he’s making is a particular brand of patient, socially aware picture that we don’t see an awful lot, and it’s something to be embraced. There are certainly problems, but in even trying to aspiring to be something more than the average gritty crime-drama, Killing Them Softly deserves your time. See it, and then revisit the director’s first two pictures, for there are few people making films like this.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★