Killing Them Softly
Directed By: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Slaine
Killing Them Softly is the 3rd feature film from New Zealand born, Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik. Killing Them Softly is written for the screen by Dominik, adapted from the book Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. Although the novel was written all the way back in 1974, it’s themes still resonate in today’s society. The film was in contention of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes’ film festival, losing to Michael Haneke’s Amour.
Dominik is turning into an impressively versatile filmmaker. He follows his low-budget character study of notorious Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in Chopper (2000) and more recently psychological western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) with a nihilistic gangster movie in the vein of films by Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
In Killing Them Softly the gangster underworld is represented as a type of social class equally affected by America’s economic downturn. The film is set against the backdrop of the U.S. Presidential election in 2008 and the end of the Bush Administration. The opening sequences jump cut takes license from the European directors of the French New Wave. Small time criminals Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) talk about holding-up and mob protected poker game for Frankie’s employer Johnny ‘Squirrel’ Amato (Vincent Curatola). They see it as a way of getting rich, fast. Inter-cut are snippets of Barack Obama’s election speech.
Against the odds, the slightly dim-witted duo successfully make away with the cash. They think they get away with the heist until hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is hired by a Counsellor (Richard Jenkins) to sort out the messy situation. In typical fashion Pitt’s character oozes cool. He is a level headed character amongst a band of idiots that populate the film. In Killing Them Softly Dominik’s displays a bleak portrait of the recent past. The system of organised crime in a working class society is run by apparent imbeciles and is equated cinematically by the system of government within the U.S. through inventive editing and carefully overt references to the political climate during the election campaign. In Dominik’s America, money is everything and life is cheap.
The secondary characters are mainly stupid, selfish and unlikable. Markie (Ray Liotta) is the instigator of his own downfall. The Counsellor, clearly an embodiment of local political corruption, does not have a mind of his own and takes his orders from the gangster hierarchy. Mickey (James Gandolfini) in more ways than one represents the faded gangster. Once a stone cold killer, life has reduced him to a paranoid alcoholic mess. Mickey overtly voices Killing Them Softly’s existentially nihilistic themes.
Killing Them Softly is fast paced, however it also devotes a fair amount of its runtime to characters having a conversation with one another. On one hand, conversations between Frankie and Russell can, at times, feel like too much of a Tarantino pastiche. On another, dialogue between the Counsellor and Jackie can too overtly reference the film’s thematic intentions. Ultimately, Killing Them Softly delivers everything you might expect from the genre while simultaneously remaining original, stylish and fresh. A film that is humorous and brutal is equal measure.