Andrew Dominik’s third feature is an interesting, often entertaining but also frustrating crime thriller which reunites the Australian film-maker with Jesse James star Brad Pitt. The film features severe brutality and wonderful performances but the elements that should have stayed in the subtext are beaten into the audience as much as much the hapless characters.
Adapted from George V. Higgins’ novel and set in New Orleans against the back drop of the Wall Street Banking Crisis and the 2008 Presidential election, Killing them Softly is a crime thriller with a socio-economic message not so much on its sleeve but carved on its forehead. Scoot McNairy (Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (last seen in The Dark Knight Rises) play two naïve crooks who agree to rob a Mob-protected high stakes poker game for a local small time gangster named the Squirrel (The Sopranos’ Vincent Curatola). The bosses suspect Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the game’s manager who is more guilty for his negligence than his complicity. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an efficient and clinical hit man is brought in by a mysterious lawyer (the ever great Richard Jenkins) – with connections to an unidentified network of authorities inside and out of the underworld – to clean up the entire mess.
Dominik seems to relish in deconstructing audiences perceptions of gangster-genre veterans such as James Gandolfini, Curatola, and Liotta. The three are somewhat weak characters who are simply small fish in a very big and dangerous pond. Liotta particularly is a quivering, cowering tragic character – completely removed from the swagger he exemplified in Goodfellas. Gandolfini too retains some of his magnetic threatening persona but he is a hit man with a broken heart and a broke n liver from his alcoholism and penchant for prostitutes. The rest of the supporting cast is superb with Sam Shephard, Richard Jenkins and Slaine (seen in Ben Affleck’s The Town and Gone Baby Gone) all delivering strong but all-to-brief contributions to the film. Pitt is maintaining his consistency with another confident and compelling performance. He imbues Cogan with empathy – exemplified by his tact of assassinating his targets “softly” – yet he is direct and unyielding in his objectives. His speech at the climax of the movie set against Barack Obama’s election victory speech is electrifying and among Pitt’s finest work.
Killing them Softly is a violent film. The beatings are rough and severe and you feel every punch – every broken tooth, every crack in the jaw, every smashed nose. The gunshots are loud and frightening. The gangster life is in no way romantic or glamorous. It’s a kill or be killed environment and those who hesitate to be ruthless and driven in their mission are victims. It’s a Darwinian environment where “hope” and “change” are just words printed on dilapidated billboards.
The plot of the film is very simple but Dominik rather slows down the action and focus on the characters. It’s almost surprising the film ends when it does as one does not know what to expect or where the story is heading. There is an uncertainty in the pacing of the film that is quite apparent. Furthermore, rumours that Dominik’s original cut was 2 and half hours (the finished film is a brisk 97 minutes) give weight to the belief that Dominik had much more ambitious plans.
It’s easy to speculate about the reasons for such a massive cut to footage (studio pressure perhaps) but Dominik seems to mistrust his audience to “get” the sub textual themes and motifs. It’s painfully apparent that the heist and subsequent fallout is an allegory for the Economic Crisis and the cutthroat crime underworld is not dissimilar to corporate America. Dominik doesn’t believe in or understated subtlety but Killing them Softly is an entertaining ride nonetheless. One cannot help ponder whether this film was destined for something much, much more.
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