Killing Them Softly Review By Adam
Ladies and gentlemen, roll up. Here we have a real film. Stylish, inventive, bruising and intelligent, Killing Them Softly is dynamite cinema. Its blending of art house style and genre thrills (think: last year’s Drive) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those of you who like their cinema bold and challenging, Killing will have you licking the plate.
When dropkicks Frank (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are told about a mob-run poker game by Johnny ‘The Squirrel’ Amato (Vincent Curatola, immortalised as Johnny ‘Sack’ on The Sopranos) they think that robbing it would be the perfect crime. See, the game was held up once before, and it is common knowledge that the benefactor of that heist was the man running it, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). These punks think that they will make off with an easy 40 grand and their perfect scapegoat, Markie, will automatically be saddled with the blame. But they haven’t counted on mob hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) having the same train of thought. The ice-cool Cogan not only has to deal with the thieving upstarts but also the bureaucracy of the remodelled, penny pinching mafia of 2008.
Despite having only three features under his belt, Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik is one of the most accomplished and stylish talents working today. His last feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — long winded title non-withstanding — is an uncompromised (look at the title for Christ’s sakes!), bona fide masterpiece that sits right at the top of my best films of the decade list. Killing is undeniably a less substantial film but it retains the idiosyncratic nature of Jesse James: Killing looks and sound like nothing else before it.
Based on the plot of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and updated to the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, Killing is a seriously angry piece of cinema. Despite being heavily front-loaded with political allegory — the film is overtly peppered with Mr Obama’s most uplifting sound bites — Killing’s social commentary is a welcome, if unusual, addition to a genre normally restricted to the basest of actions. Most great crime films document the moral corrosion of crime —which Dominik does — but few have so cynically explored the rampant financial frugality. Killing inverts the notions of crime cinema and portrays sociopathic behaviour as a banal result of financial ambition and not the other way around – America is one big business with murder and politics indispensible elements of the continuous trade.
Except for a few lines from a sassy hooker, Killing is a predominantly male affair. Dominik has gathered an impressive ensemble and he gets great performances from all involved. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are electric as the bumbling catalysts of these violent events. Mendelsohn has been wisely cast as an Australian and he relishes his greasy, skaghead caricature – watching him walk a dognapped Chihuahua while eating a Magnum ice-cream is an absurdly funny and indelible cinematic image. McNairy is a dynamic screen presence and his work here and in Ben Affleck’s brilliant Argo heralds a great new talent. Ray Liotta is cast against type as a victim of circumstance and his Markie Trattman is almost biblical in his misfortunes, while Richard Jenkins offers characteristicly great support as a nervy mob bureaucrat. With the exception of Pitt, James Gandolfini is Killing’s heaviest hitter. In a bold move, his alcoholic, sociopathic, hitman character Mickey does nothing to move the plot forward — if anything, he brings it to a screeching halt — but Dominik has faith in Gandolfini’s considerable talents. He stages a series of conversational scenes between Mickey and Cogan that are the centrepieces of the film. Pitt and Gandolfini put on an acting master class that effortlessly demonstrates the insecurities and fragility of even the most hardened men. For some, these scenes may stop the film’s propulsion dead in its tracks, but it is scenes like these that boldly set Dominik’s work apart from others.
Brad Pitt makes brave choices as an actor. It would be beyond easy for him to pump out overblown action films or trite romantic comedies and laugh all the way to the bank, but Pitt’s filmography is interestingly schizophrenic – for every workman-like Mr. and Mrs. Smith he has an incendiary Fight Club. He often gravitates to difficult material and Killing is no exception; his Jackie Cogan is an extremely opaque character. Introduced to the sounds of ‘The man comes around’ by Johnny Cash, Cogan is quite a sight. With his tinted aviators, snug leather jacket, stylish goatee and Marlboro between his lips, Pitt utilises every fibre of his movie star cool. Pitt plays Cogan as a tightly coiled spring: he is a man supremely confident in his opinions and his abilities. There is an air of elitism to Cogan, but when you see him in action, it is undoubtedly deserved – this is man who kills for money, a man who has seen beyond the veil of society. Pitt’s venomous speech at the end of Killing is movie magic and once again cements his position not only as an A-lister, but as a true acting talent.
From its jittery, abrasive opening to its quietly powerful finale Killing is a supremely stylish film. It contains at least half a dozen scenes that are jaw-dropping in their execution, often due to their unusual use of sound. The robbery of the poker game is a nerve shredding, master class in suspense. Dominik turns down the sound and focuses on McNairy’s squeaky voice. With a sea of hardened eyes on the inexperienced thief the air of violence is palpable. Even one the most played-out of scenes — the mob shakedown — gets a cinematic lift under Dominik’s eye. He once again manipulates the soundscape so that all that is audible is the sound of rain hitting leather and fists hitting bone. It is stomach churning stuff and incredibly effective. Also of note is a scene where McNairy and Mendelsohn try to converse after shooting up heroin. It is wonderfully fractured (and darkly hilarious) as each party tries to gain information from the other all whilst struggling to retain consciousness.
I fear that the version we are getting of Killing is a truncated one. This film runs a brisk 97 minutes, which is surprising considering that Dominik’s last feature ran for almost three hours. Rumours of a two and a half-hour cut abound and the original title (Cogan’s Trade) was snazzed up at the last minute. This (assumed) interference robs Killing of some of its cohesion and the film often feels fractured, like a dropped plate. But what a beautiful, ornate plate it is. Killing Them Softly may not be a perfect film, but it is something almost as good: thrillingly alive. A must for crime fans and serious cinema aficionados.