Killing Them Softly (2012)
Starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Sitting in a car conversing with his go-between mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins), Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) takes a moment to explain his preference for murder: he dislikes doing it up close, as people become emotional, and sometimes try anything to talk their way out; he prefers to “kill them softly” from a distance. This is just one of the moments in Andrew Dominik’s latest that is oozing with analogical orgasms in nearly every scene and sequence. Killing Them Softly is a methodically paced, supremely acted, brutally violent and masterfully written neo-noir, and is a solid entry in the director’s furthering career.
The story follows Cogan, a problem fixer for the mob who is called upon to investigate a robbery at a mob-controlled card game that has halted the influx of a key revenue stream. Those responsible must be found and dealt with accordingly, and that’s what Jackie Cogan specializes in. Like the film itself, Cogan is steely eyed, carries himself with a workman-like attitude and assured confidence, and is rife with cynicism. Beginning the story and coinciding with Cogan’s investigation that follows are the perpetrators of the robbery, who couldn’t be any more the polar opposite of our anti-hero. On one hand there’s Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a small time criminal who is looking for that one job that could propel him into realizing his delusions of grandeur. On the other, there’s Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a drug addicted freelancer who’s just looking for enough work to further his career aspirations as a drug dealer. Supporting our variety of antagonists is washed out hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini), the manager of the card game Mark (Ray Liotta), a third accomplice to the robbery (Vincent Curatola), and the aforementioned mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who refers to his employers as a group of handicapped children who need to be walked through every little detail. How these characters come into the presence of one another and interact is the biggest joy of the film. Everyone involved brings their A-game to the table, even if their participation is somewhat brief, because it’s the briefest moments in Killing Them Softly that leave the biggest impact.
It’s easy to say and ironic that this is Brad Pitt’s best film since Dominik’s last, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I’ve always enjoyed Pitt when he’s in manic crazy mode ala Tyler Durden in Fight Club or in Twelve Monkeys, but it seems his penchant for picking his roles very carefully and sparingly has made and kept me a fan. Ben Mendelsohn is a rising talent who has been on the up and up since his fantastic turn in the under seen Animal factory and I’ve never disliked any of his performances thus far. Considering he’s normally some type of scum bag, be it corporate or criminal, that takes serious talent. Scoot McNairy was introduced to the world in the similarly under-seen Monsters, and is on a similar rise. His character is a loser, but his fragility and teenage-like demeanour are sold perfectly and it’s fun to watch him interject self-depreciating humour into the situation and at characters he’s interacting with. Gandolfini, Liotta, Curatola, and Jenkins are all exactly what you’d expect them to be, slipping into the exact types of characters you’ve come to expect from these seasoned veterans of criminal drama, Jenkins being the standout.
Killing Them Softly at its core is a reflection of the United States, and specifically the recent economic collapse and government bailout. Whereas in Cogan’s Trade, the novel the film is based on took place in the 1970’s, Killing Them Softly takes place in an unspecified New York neighbourhood circa 2008, and makes a great effort throughout to let its viewers know what’s happening in this story is not unlike what happened to that country during the recession. Time is taken to interweave the narrative with televisions and radios airing speeches from the former President George Bush, and current President Barack Obama. Sometimes it’s blatant, and sometimes it’s just background noise. The similarity is never more clear than in the exceedingly satisfying ending, where Cogan’s cynicism towards life in America completely boils over due to the actions of another. At times I felt beaten over the head by this point, although I appreciate that Dominik respects his audience’s intelligence enough that he’s willing to throw so much subtext onto the screen.
That being said, this is a film for people who love cinema, and for those who prefer a slow burn rather than a frantic action movie (the kind of film this was ironically marketed as). It’s unapologetic, brutal and beautiful to look at. There are no happy endings or stylistic tones found within that would appeal to a general audience. If you’re a fan and are familiar with Dominik’s writing and directing style, you are going to get exactly what you desire: a series of dialogue driven sequences sometimes punctuated by a moment or sequence of visceral bloody violence in the vein of his earlier work. If you walked in thinking you were getting a slick and well choreographed brainless gangster flick, then go watch Gangster Squad. Films like Killing them Softly prove that in today’s world of franchises, tent poles, and celebrity-vehicles, there is still quality-fare to be discovered and enjoyed.