Killing Them Softly is a film about incompetent gangsters. Seriously, these gangs certainly aren’t The Sopranos. We feel for Brad Pitt’s hitman Jackie Cogan, who is exasperated when he learns the very people he is tracking down almost want to be caught. When you see Cogan’s frustration, you might even think he’s annoyed that they’ve made his job too easy. The general stupidity of the gangsters gives the film a darkly witty tone, but when it drifts into social commentary, Killing Them Softly loses sight of what it wants to be.
As a basic gangster movie, this really does get it spot on. It has a delicate blend of old fashioned and modern techniques, that evoke memories of David Mamet while still feeling fresh. And yet, Andrew Dominik doesn’t seem satisfied with this. He has to inject social commentary by setting the film in the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential Election. It’s like the country has a hangover, but it doesn’t say as much about the condition of America as it thinks it does. Thankfully, the more dialogue heavy scenes save this film from drifting into limbo by injecting some black humour for relief. One particular scene which leads to a story about a car burning is rather hilarious.
Frankie and Russell (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are both rather smalltime junkie thieves. They are hired by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold-up a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Trattman has organised a hold-up of his own game before, so he instantly becomes the prime suspect. The high rolling victims though are not completely satisfied, so decide to bring a little outside help.
And so in rides Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an outside enforcer to track down the real culprits. Cogan is a brooding, introverted anti-hero, the kind of role that Pitt revels in. It’s hardly surprising then that this is one of his best recent performances, and at times he is required to carry the film on his back. He had to face up against a lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who just won’t condone any violence (even though Cogan knows it is inevitable). And when Cogan decides to bring in his friend Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help, he starts to spiral into a pit of booze and prostitutes. Cogan could not be more alone.
Lucky for Cogan then that his targets are making it all very easy for him. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is a layabout who probably hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell is a junkie who steals dogs and sells them on. When they first meet up to arrange their heist, Frankie is ideally smoking while standing on a wooden stool that has been left in the street. Russell is towing along around eight dogs that are varied in size. Why would someone want to hire these two idiots? Probably because they were the only two people available. And because this will probably be the most accurate representation of thieves on the screen this year.
Killing Them Softly marks the second collaboration between Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik, their first being the superbly eerie The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. This film is based on the 1970s novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik manages to drag the story into the modern day world while at the same time keeping a 70s style. It’s like he’s turned back the clock to the pre-Tarantino era, keeping it for the most part rather traditional. However there are a few flares of modernism that lead to the more memorable moments in the film. There is one notable slow motion set piece, filled with shattering glass and spurting blood.
However the film really does start to let itself down with its blunt attempts at social commentary. In the background of many scenes, we can hear rolling news reporting on the latest speech given by outgoing president George W. Bush, and the Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama. They are always talking about the economy and the latest bailout. We do understand where the film is coming from, but it feels like it’s being shoved down our throats when it’s not what we’re looking for. The only thing that is more distancing is the rather abhorrent representation of women. They are constantly being referred to in strikingly offensive ways. The only female character is a nameless prostitute that Cogan finds in Mickey’s room. They have a brief conversation which is colourful to say the least.
As a gangster film, Killing Them Softly evokes memories of Mamet, Stone, and Scorsese without feeling like a carbon copy. It also has one of the most severe beatings you’ll ever see on the screen, which is exactly what you come to expect from a film like this. But at times it’s trying a little too hard to make a point. Dominik is showing us that the idea of the community is a complete fallacy, and that people are now only concerned with greed and self-interest. There is nothing wrong with this, and while the final line of the film is snappy and memorable, everything that came before makes you feel a little distanced. It could have been one of the best films of the year, if it had only taken it easy.
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