Killing Them Softly * * * *
Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Sam Shepard, Trevor Long, Max Casella, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Linara Washington.
Back in 2007, Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik collaborated, for the first time, on the ethereal western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford“. Five years later, they’re back together again and this time they attempt a crime movie. Now, this runs over an hour less than their previous effort but in some ways it feels just as drawn out. That’s not to say that’s it’s unsuccessful, though. It has received criticism from many corners but personally I think expectations and preconceived ideas have led to a misunderstanding with this one.
Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are a couple of smalltime crooks for hire. They get a job to hold up a high-stakes, mafia run, card game that’s overseen by middle-man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As Markie has openly admitted to holding up a game in the past, he becomes the obvious suspect but something doesn’t quite add up. To clear up the mess, outside enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in the get to the bottom of it.
Films that fall into the crime genre will always have a certain level of expectation about them. It must be difficult for a director to try and establish a new format when there is a demand that they follow a particular formula. This adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade” is exactly the type of film that has been criticised for it’s lack of urgency and has suffered in it’s comparison with previous genre classics. Personally, I admire Dominik’s attempt at crafting something different here, and despite a glacial pace, I still found it gripping. This is a film that focuses less on action and more on talking and it’s entirely understandable why some didn’t appreciate it, but for me, the talking was the action and that’s thanks to solid performances from everyone involved. Every actor is as good as the other and it’s through their strong, and lengthy, exchanges of dialogue that each of them are able to shine; McNairy and Mendelsohn carry the weight of the first part of the story with two very different but equally unlikable low-life’s; Liotta plays a perfect, desperate middle-man; Jenkins epitomises the business side of things and Gandolfini is a perfect display of regret and melancholia from a hit-man who’s lost his touch. Ultimately, though, it’s the reserved central performance from Pitt who commands. Arguably, he’s got less to work with but his subtlety is key in expressing the coldness and stark reality of the business that these people operate in.
Of course – as is now expected of Dominik – he doesn’t just deliver a formulaic gangster story. Instead, he infuses it with allegory and makes a social commentary on the financial state of America. Throughout the film there are, ironic, radio and television broadcasts of political speeches and discussions about the economy and reminders of how America is the land of opportunity. It’s a, less than subtle, device but one that worked quite well. On slightly closer inspection, the criminals that roam this underbelly of modern America are no less disingenuous or manipulative than the politicians in office. They just happen to be conducting their business on a lesser scale. At one point Pitt’s Jackie Cogan even describes his cohorts as “Corporate mentality gangsters“. That aside, this is still a crime film and as a result, it’s not adverse to rolling up it’s sleeves and getting it’s hands dirty. There may be only sporadic moments of action but when they do appear they are brutally delivered and some of the violence displayed on-screen is wince inducing.
Much like the aforementioned western collaboration between Dominik and Pitt this film dares to incorporate a sociopolitical commentary throughout it’s genre. It’s unconventional but very effective nonetheless and the last line of the film sums up it’s theme perfectly… “America is not a country, it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”