After his blistering debut with ‘Chopper’ in 2000, New Zealand director Andrew Dominik has moved very slowly with his career. His second film, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (2007) emerged out of years of post-production to be a critically-acclaimed alternate take on the western: romantic, elegant and poetic. Once again, we have waited a number of years to see what he would do next, and ‘Killing Them Softly’, only his third film, is the long-awaited result.
Two small-time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), hit upon an almost-flawless plan, to make a hit on a card game run by crooked gangster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Trattman has a history of hitting up his own games, so they assume that everyone will once again blame him for the crime. What they don’t plan for is the retaliation. Suddenly they’re hunted men, quietly pursued by Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a calculated and intelligent hit man of no affiliations and high ideals.
At first glance, ‘Killing Them Softly’ seems like a sharp change of pace for Dominik after ‘Jesse James’, going from an elegiac philosophical western to a hard-boiled gangster film. However, the two have much in common, and Dominik seems to be continuing the same line of investigation and interrogation he started in his previous films. There is a terrific investigation into the psychology of men of violence, what propels them and guides them. They are not villains or heroes, simply men burrowing out an existence. Visually, the same poetry from ‘Jesse James’ isn’t initially apparent; the rhythms of the film more erratic and immediate, but Dominik allows himself moments of wonderful cinema, including a beautiful car crash sequence and one of the most original approaches to a drug trip in a while. This is clearly the film of an artist in control of his medium, and it is thrilling to watch him navigate the narrative’s twists and turns.
The film is an adaptation and update of George V. Higgins’ novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’. Originally set in 1974, Dominik, once again in the writer’s seat as well as director, sets the events of the novel against the backdrop of the Obama-McCain Election in 2008, and the early days of the Global Financial Crisis. Initially, this seems like an odd choice, and the logic behind it isn’t instantly apparent. There are moments where the soundtrack drops completely to focus on candidate speeches on the television or radio. Like any great piece of allegory though, it makes the audience work for their satisfaction, and in the final moments, the film lays its philosophical ideals out beautifully. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a film that assumes that its audience is one willing to engage with it, and those who do will find it even more fulfilling an experience.
Brad Pitt continues his collaboration with Dominik after his dynamic performance in ‘Jesse James’. As Cogan, Pitt once again proves himself one of the best actors working today, with an understated and chilling performance. Cogan is not a simple machine, and acts as the moral heartbeat of the film. Pitt doesn’t give too much away, doesn’t indulge in too much ‘acting’. He is very much the ensemble player here, and as always in such situations, Pitt is ever the perfect ensemble player. The rest of the cast is top notch. Ray Liotta is the best he has been in years, and Ben Mendelsohn making up in spades for his lacklustre work in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini are truly beautiful and unexpected as Cogan’s associates, avoiding every cliché that threatens the kinds of characters they inhabit. And in a similar fashion to Casey Affleck’s breakthrough performance in ‘Jesse James’, Dominik finds a real star in Scoot McNairy, who proves himself an incredibly capable and intelligent actor in such a strong and formidable cast. His is a talent worth watching.
Pitt once again proves himself one of the best actors working today, with an understated and chilling performance.
‘Killing Them Softly’ is likely to leave a few people cold and scratching their heads. On the surface, it looks like it should be a standard gangster film, maybe another ‘Goodfellas’ rip-off, but anyone who walks into this film expecting this will be disappointed. Then again, ‘Jesse James’ was met with a similar reception, and has since been acknowledged as a modern classic. Whether this film is bound for the same fate is hard to say. It isn’t as poetic or sweeping a film, but it is a far more intelligent and dangerous film than you would expect, and features some truly impressive performances. Dominik and his team refuse to hand you everything on a plate. They want you to work with them, and if you’re willing to go with that, you will not be disappointed. For fans of his work, this one has definitely been worth the wait.