Killing Them Softly (2012)
Director: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta.
Run Time: 97 minutes.
Killing Them Softly is an unpredictable and somewhat unconventional crime thriller/inescapably funny black comedy, whichever way you look at it. Brad Pitt stars as a Mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, called in to crack skulls when Scoot McNairy and Ben Medelsohn knock over Ray Liotta’s card game. From the off, with the nauseating title cards alternated with excerpts of Barack Obama’s ‘08 campaign speech, you know you’re in for something a little bit different from the usual Hollywood fare. Lawless this aint. This is cynical and minimal film making at its very gritty best. And if I had to use one word to describe Killing Them Softly, cynical would be it.
Using the ’08 Presidential election as a backdrop to the film is a masterstroke, mirroring the world of the gangsters. Like America at that time, and what we saw follow, Jackie and his associates live in a world built on gambling and mismanagement, epitomised by Richard Jenkins’ character. He is Jackie’s Mob contact, hilariously relaying messages from the new corporate style committee, always trying to drive down prices and either hesitating or being unclear on the correct course of action. Alternately Frankie (McNairy) and Russell (Mendelsohn) act through meagre desperation and are guided by a deprived greed. In this world, The American Dream is non-existent, and very few of the characters realise it.
The film itself is an adaptation of the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, by George V Higgins, which also used a recession and a lack of corporate accountability to frame the story, making it very relevant in terms of updating, which Dominik does incredibly well. It’s reflected in the sparse, almost frugal filming style and the moments of uncomfortable violence throughout, which reflect the image of a brutal and lean modern America. Dominik is famed for his uncompromising approach to film making, which is prevalent here. you can see some of the flourishes from his past works, but also couldn’t imagine such an outcome from another director working on a fairly big release, and this is refreshing to see. This is the film I wanted Lawless to be, so the world isn’t all bad.
I think that, direction aside, the film really stands out due to an amazing cast and script. Rarely does a director put so much trust in a script, and the actors tasked with performing it. Little is said, but it is said with conviction. It is also funny as hell, with most of the best lines saved for James Gandolfini’s washed up second shooter New York Mickey, a past his prime liability, grunting sinister threats behind a sweaty smile, and heaving through the tail end of a midlife crisis on screen.
The two inept hold up artists (holder-uppers?), Frankie and Russell (played nasally and desperate by McNairy, and sleazily nasty by Mendelsohn) are the worst kind of gutter rats. While I did feel somewhat sorry for Frankie, you just knew it was never going to end well for them as soon as Jackie got involved, and Jackie is undoubtedly the star of the show.
Personally, I think Bradley Pitts is a fantastic actor, and dispels any hype around his involvement in films by simply turning in fantastic performances. He also brings major star quality to appease studios, which always helps. Much like George Clooney, as a wee scamp I never say the appeal of him, seeing only his impossibly strong jaw (Dredd worthy?) and eyes you could melt into. And the hair!
But I digress.
Brad Pitt can act, and more often than not, he picks challenging films or roles rather than the easiest option, and that’s fucking commendable when you see some of the slop getting churned out by Hollywood. In Killing Them Softly, he brings a world weary and cynical cool last seen in Fight Club (1999), and it’ Jackie’s cynical view of America that we see. He commands the screen and solves the problems in the film with minimal fuss. He’s always in control, where others most certainly are not. It feels like the older Pitt gets, the more absorbing his performances become (much like in Andrew Domink’s last film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
Each character plays off those around him brilliantly, creating a powerful and affecting piece of cinema, played hard and cold. This is pessimistic film making at its very best, and expertly handled by all involved. So if you want something a little bit different to watch this week, something a little more cerebral, but a hell of a lot more rewarding, this may be the film for you. I would even go as far as saying this is a contender for my film of the year, but there is still a way to go for that to be decided (hopefully, 2012 hasn’t been a vintage year in my eyes). Andrew Dominik is a director who does films his own way, and on the back of Killing Them Softly, he should be allowed to continue to do so.
Score: 8 out of 10.
If you liked this, check out: No Country for Old Men, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, Chopper, Animal Kingdom, Drive.
No trailer this week, as it pretty much tells the whole story of the film. Avoid if you can, but luckily the film is so fantastic that this didn’t even ruin it for me. But yeah, be safe when watching trailers.