Killing Them Softly

Ostensibly a gangster film, but one that subverts the tradition of glamourising the criminal lifestyle

Release: 21 September
Director: Andrew Dominik
Length: 97 mins
Rating: ****

Killing Them Softly, Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik’s follow up to 2007’s exceptional neo-Western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and his second collaboration with Brad Pitt, is loosely based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade with the events relocated to a post- Katrina New Orleans in 2008.

The story begins with a pair of cloddish, small-time criminals Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) being persuaded to stick up a high stakes card game run by Marky (Ray Liotta), in the hope that the blame would be pinned on him due to his previous betrayals. The robbery subsequently wreaks havoc on the local criminal economy so outside enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is brought in to clear up the mess. Ostensibly, Killing Them Softly is a gangster film but one that subverts the Hollywood tradition of glamourising the criminal lifestyle; not since The Sopranos has this been done so effectively.

Killing Them Softly portrays a world where crime is a business just like any other: mundane, susceptible to detrimental economic conditions and obstructed by incompetence. All of the characters are brought down to ground level: revealed to be, in some way, unhappy and pathetic. It is telling that the only female character is a prostitute as Killing Them Softly is a study in the feebleness of the male criminal psyche. This is best demonstrated by James Gandolfini’s character, a booze-addled, past his prime hitman.

Even Cogan, often the smartest guy is the room, is fallible: he reveals his squeamishness and dislike of dealing with pleading victims preferring to “Kill them softly, from a distance.” As opposed to Ryan Gosling’s hitman in Drive (a film that Killing Them Softly has oft been compared to), whose phlegmatic insouciance made him an enigma, Pitt’s character is far more recognisable. Cogan is a figure of pragmatism, left indignant and world-weary from constantly having to worry about the incompetence of others.

Throughout the course of the film, incoming president Barack Obama speeches blare from televisions and radios. Obama’s messages of hope and community are so at odds with the suffocating, almost post-apocalyptic environment, deftly captured by Dominik, that these characters inhabit that they are either met with apathy or derision. Cogan’s pessimistic worldview, expressed fully in his electrifying monologue just before the film finishes underpins Killing Them Softly’s political subtext: the action in criminal world that the film inhabits is reflective of the corruption that occurs on Wall Street that led to the global financial crisis. Just as the banks had to be bailed out in order to inspire confidence in America’s economy, Cogan must sacrifice Marky in order to inspire confidence in the criminal economy. You feel that the film’s message could benefit from a greater degree of subtlety: while the point that Dominik makes is an interesting one, it is made so relentlessly that it diminishes its power.

The social commentary isn’t the only thing in Killing Them Softly that is a bit too on the nose: a scene in with two characters take heroin is soundtracked by The Velvet Underground’s Heroin. The scene leaves you thinking that James Cameron, from whose mind came Unobtainium- the unobtainable mineral in Avatar, might have regarded the song choice as slightly too obvious, but the scene is so beautifully shot that you almost don’t care.

At 97 minutes, Killing Them Softly is expertly paced. All the actors involved are on terrific form, especially Mendelsohn and McNairy as the two grimy lowlifes, and the dialogue (predominantly lifted from Higgins’ novel) is sharp and darkly humourous without being as contrived or showy as you’d get in a Tarantino film. Indeed, there is so much to like about Killing Them Softly that it is easy to forgive the clumsy political subtext.

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