Five years on from his masterful and sorely underappreciated art-western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Kiwi-born Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik (Chopper) is finally back with his new crime film Killing Them Softly, which premiered at Cannes and is being positioned for an awards season run in the U.S. The film reunites the talented writer/director with Brad Pitt (who once again produces) and surrounds him with a terrific ensemble of character actors, including Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta. Disguised as a stylish gangster flick, Killing Them Softly launches a scathing and blackly humourous attack on American capitalism and this allegorical genre exercise is one of the year’s top films.
Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 mob novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s film provocatively updates the setting from Boston to New Orleans in 2008 as the United States faces its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Killing Them Softly announces its political intentions loud and clear at the outset, as audio from Barack Obama’s optimistic speech at the Democratic National Convention concerning “that American promise” is intercut with white noise and then silence when the opening titles appear. Campaign billboards for Obama and John McCain are visible in the run-down neighbourhood where a couple of petty hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his skeezy accomplice Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), accept a job from old-timer Jonny Amato (Vincent Curatola), who explains that the regular high stakes poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is a foolproof target since he has knocked off his own game before and would therefore be the prime suspect. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a shrewd enforcer who is called in by the unseen corporate mob — whose intentions are expressed through an anonymous middle-man (Richard Jenkins) — to deal with the robbers as well as Markie, who must be needlessly punished for the sake of appearances. Jackie prefers not to kill people he knows — or up close, opting to “kill ’em softly, from a distance” — and to that end Mickey (James Gandolfini) is brought in from the East Coast to take care of the contract. What follows is neither an action extravaganza nor a brooding portrayal of lonerish hitmen, but rather a dialogue-heavy depiction of weary tough guys struggling to get by amidst nightmarish managerial incompetence, punctuated by moments of heavily-stylized violence and dark humour as things progressively go badly for everyone involved.
Killing Them Softly dutifully covers all the bases of a gangster story, but Dominik never lets up on the political references, dropping in ironic soundbites from George W. Bush, McCain and Obama throughout. He intends to express his anger over the failings of America’s rotten financial institutions and politicians through the metaphorical and cynical narrative, and this is hammered home in a searing and quotable final line from Jackie. Equally brazen is Dominik’s visual style, which calls attention to itself with some shamelessly showy and tremendously assured sequences such as Russell’s drugged-out disorientation and an elaborate execution which is shown from multiple angles in artful slow-motion. Another superbly stylised moment is Jackie’s introduction, as he appears with slicked-back hair, dark glasses and leather jacket while Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’ plays, delivering some on the nose lyrics (“There’s a man going’ round takin’ names / An’ he decides who to free and who to blame / Everbody won’t be treated all the same / There’ll be a golden ladder reachin’ down / When the man comes around.”). Elsewhere, the classic rock’n’roll soundtrack’s song titles alone are enough to reinforce its themes: ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, ‘I Think This Town is Nervous’, ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’… While some might prefer that the theme of their crime noirs remain a subtle subtext, I admire the refreshingly blunt and uncompromising storytelling that Dominik has employed here and the exciting, overt stylisations make for an apt match.
Compared to the languorous Jesse James, this film is remarkably taut — clocking in at a lean 97 minutes — and there is not a wasted line in Dominik’s powerful script. The terrific, almost typecast (and exclusively male), actors bring a wealth of experience and authority to their roles — including an appearance from Sam Shepard as Jackie’s partner Dillon — and it even works in the film’s favour that genre regulars such as Liotta (Goodfellas), Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom), Gandolfini and Curatola (The Sopranos) are inhabiting a world not dissimilar to the ones that first brought them to our attention. For his part, Pitt delivers another compelling, restrained and effortlessly charismatic antihero in Jackie, and his post-Babel creative resurgence thankfully shows no signs of abating. Jenkins is as reliable as ever as the smarmy, lowballing “Driver”, and rising actor McNairy (Argo) is arguably the standout performer of the colourful supporting cast as he seemingly channels Casey Affleck.
As a recession-era gangster story, Killing Them Softly is occasionally familiar — recalling the definitive works of Scorsese and Tarantino at times — but never less than thrilling thanks to its flawless performers, cracking dialogue and dazzling style; as a call for responsibility and accountability in American capitalism, the film is a darkly pessimistic, righteously angry and unfortunately necessary sermon for our times; and as a piece of cinema, it is one of the most vital, engrossing, intelligent and masterful works I have seen this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Killing Them Softly is out now in New Zealand cinemas and on November 30 in the US. Watch the trailer below.