Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly


Reviewed by: David Graham

While many worshipped it as the heralding of a distinct new directorial talent, The Assassination Of Jesse James was something of a confounding delight for others. Where Andrew Dominik's Chopper was an irreverent cult crowd-pleaser, his eventual follow-up was a drawn out, elegaic take on the revisionist Western that was lush to look at and featured a star-making turn from a mesmeric Casey Affleck, but left some unsure of its real value as an engaging piece of cinema.

Again casting his Jesse James lead Brad Pitt in another career-bolstering turn (it's hard to think of any other mainstream actor who's grown so effortlessly into their abilities along with their looks), Dominik returns to the crime genre with an adaptation of George V Higgins' then-pertinent 70s novel Cogan's Trade. Updated to take blatant pot-shots at America's current political meltdown, whether the film is successful as an adaptation or as a piece of commentary will depend on your patience for being lectured.

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When low-rent robbers Frankie and Russell are put up to ripping off a gangster gambling den, fingers are pointed left, right and centre, not least at host Markie, who's 'fessed up to holding up his own game before. Hired hitman Cogan is brought in to sort out the bloody mess and appease the local mobsters, but his refined ways of business ruffle feathers with his employers and are threatened by his tactical deployment of old pal Mickey, who has become an unreliable drunk. With the recession biting hard even at these ruthless villains' heels, everyone is in it for themselves and cares only about the bottom line, but not many of them will be around long enough to enjoy their pay-day.

Opening with generously lengthy scenes of crowd-pleasing, expectation-building banter between Scoot Monsters McNairy and Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn, Dominik reels the audience in with the set-up of a too-good-to-be-true heist that exploits the 'boy who cried wolf' legend to dramatic effect. The persecution of Ray Liotta's fall guy is played successfully for broad laughs, and the coarse, loose exchanges between McNairy and Mendelsohn really showcase these promising actors at their peak, despite occasional diversions into unnecessarily silly, almost stoner-ish humour. As the screws tighten though, the bracing script grows darkly unforgiving, with prolonged scenes of wince-inducing violence jolting the viewer out of their safety zone, and this is before Brad Pitt's straight-talking but enigmatic death-dealer has even turned up.

Flying in the face of all this good work, a near-constant chorus of political contextualising threatens to bury the film from the start under the weight of its own pretension; Obama has nearly as much monologue as the characters do dialogue, and the parallels Dominik is at pains to present may leave more savvy viewers feeling patronised and the average punter pissed off at the distraction. It often robs key scenes of their sense of realism to have radios in hoodlums' cars and TVs in dive bars blaring out speeches in the background (would these guys really have been bothered about Obama's inauguration?), and sometimes diffuses the narrative momentum by forcing the viewer to figure out what the script is trying to say.

Annoyingly ironic and overly obvious song selections also butt in at crucial moments, overstaying their welcome in a desperate bid to remind the viewer what they should be feeling and thinking; surely Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around has had its cinematic due already? It can feel like being brow-beaten by the thugs who put poor Ray Liotta through such misery in the vain hope of admission; eventually most viewers will want to stand up and shout "Okay, we get it. Now get on with the movie!"

Which is a real shame, as Brad Pitt's character and performance say as much as the film needs to about good ol' America; his memorable debates with Richard Jenkins are pleasingly barbed, as he describes how he likes to kill 'softly, from a distance' without bringing feelings into the picture, before taking part in some of the most nauseatingly close-quarters and protracted kills of recent memory. Cogan's behaviour makes it impossible not to think of the hypocrisy of US foreign policy and war-mongering, making for a sharp indictment as well as a fascinatingly amoral character. Pitt counteracts all the nastiness with real movie-star charisma, but also a weight and gravitas that shows his character may be a monster who's well aware of his wrong-doings, but even he is sickened by the comparative weaknesses of those around him. The script and Cogan's rants make a case for self-sufficiency as the only reasonable alternative to the fallacy of the all-embracing American dream, with Pitt such a strong, near-invincible presence that he almost sells this notion, but for the crucial denial of humanity that it essentially necessitates.

Disappointingly, women have no real place in this world; the only female presence is a back-talking hooker who only exists in one brief scene to give James Gandolfini the excuse to spout audience-baiting obscenity (actually, maybe it's a blessing in disguise that women are left out of this sordid underbelly). The fates of some of the best characters are dealt with so flippantly as to be frustrating (No Country For Old Men has alot to answer for), while the spectacularly gore-speckled demises of others feel gratuitous since the victims have been drawn so sketchily. A centrepiece CGI-assisted slo-mo assassination feels even more excessive than Zak Snyder's trademark indulgences, the nagging soundtrack and sense of abject nihilism again defusing any potential suspense the scene might have mustered.

Wrapping up with Cogan's bitterly straight-faced tirade against his own country that was delivered more subversively by Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator, Dominik's cash-grubbing protagonists are ultimately impossible to care for, in part because of their relentless, recession-fuelled dollar fixation. Tellingly, the most appealing protagonists are also the most flawed human beings, from Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn's sympathetically bumbling crooks to James Gandolfini's alcoholic hitman obsessing over prostitutes while overwhelmed by a mid-life crisis that has left him impotent to his trade. These characters are initially given enough time for us to invest in them, but the narrative deals them a bit of a bum hand; a little paring and pruning could easily have emphasised their roles and made the film seem more enjoyable overall.

It's hard not to recommend Killing Them Softly as there is plenty of Tarantino-esque vim to its icy world of contracts and crims, but the mix of styles and muddled message ultimately rob the film of greatness. Dominik's showy direction can be as jarring as early Aronofsky but the over-egged approach is less appropriate here than it was in the likes of Requiem For A Dream, which this film occasionally references (albeit in humorous fashion). Despite the wattage of its stars and scene-stealing performances from a couple of rising talents, Dominik's sophomore effort will perhaps find itself in the same pickle as his previous film; critically admired but too opaque for the multiplex and wanky even by arthouse standards, it's too cold to connect with and too prickly to love.

Reviewed on: 28 Sep 2012
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Killing Them Softly packshot
Things turn nasty when the mob feels cheated over a gambling racket.
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Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik, based on the book by George V Higgins.

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini

Year: 2012

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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