After only about five people paid to see Andrew Dominik‘s beautifully poetic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the popular belief was that any director in that position would follow up his ambitious financial failure with something more commercial. While Killing Them Softly has far more public appeal than Jesse James, Dominik has fortunately made another film unafraid to polarize.
Set in 2008, following the economic collapse, mobsters have been seeking easier ways to make a quick buck or two, there is no clear order left, and, in this America, as the smooth contract killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) puts it, you’re on your own. Cogan — who’s sort of the protagonist — is brought down to New Orleans after a series of robberies hit Markie Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) poker games. With criminals afraid to play and spend their money, it’s Cogan’s job to get them back to playing, by finding the two men responsible for the latest theft, two big time losers named Frankie (Scoot McNairy, now holding the record for the most number of irritating characters in a single year) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
This reads as all fairly simple, but there’s more to this story than the trailers have been leading us to believe. Killing Them Softly is, in fact, almost more of an angry, loud voicemail left for the politicians who aren’t all that different from the lost, scrambling criminals we see in the film.
It’s not difficult to call this one divisive. Dominik’s in-your-face approach clearly isn’t for everyone. It may not be subtle, but this is a movie which absolutely deals in extremes, from its violence, the over-the-top comedy, and the characterizations. While The Assassination of Jesse James relied on melancholic images and quietness to communicate with the audience, Killing Them Softly instead turns towards relentless shouting of its themes, with the help of recurring news radio segments, newscasts, and a terrific closing speech made by Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, which, in the wrong actor’s hands, could have landed with a big empty thud.
Pitt’s performance is a reminder the movie plays as more than its message. The story definitely doesn’t reinvent the genre. A contract killer with a conscience? We’ve seen it done many times before. To no surprise, though, Dominik infuses enough energy into those conventions to avoid making them feel outdated. A lot of that driving pulse comes from a fully realized, aggressive atmosphere.
The world of Killing Them Softly can be an unpleasant one. As funny as a POV herion-induced shot is, Dominik’s version of the drug-take contains a near-nauseating effect; the idea of characters on a road trip with a car crowded with defecating dogs is humorous, but disgusting at the same time; and most of the film’s violence is excessively brutal. With the exception of a key moment — the slo-mo scene involving Jackie firing his pistol–it’s rough in the vein of both Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James.
There’s little room for pleasantries in this story, so when Dominik does manage to find room for them, they’re a thrill.
The true crowd-pleasing moments come from the crisp dialogue and the performances. There are very few lines which aren’t clever and progressive, with the possible exception of James Gandolfini‘s New York Mickie’s presence, who, really, doesn’t offer much beyond an idea and a mirthful Gandolfini performance. Then again, when you have an ensemble which boasts seemingly effortless performances from Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and the briefest of appearances by Jesse James alumni Sam Shepard, of course your dialog is going to fly.
If you find Dominik’s unsubtle political statements too obvious , there is still plenty else going on in Killing Them Softly to marvel at with its familiar, and yet fresh, genre elements. Now, for those who can admire or even see past Dominik’s overriding subtext, his worthy followup to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a tightly told, entertaining, and thrilling crime picture.
The Upside: Dominik’s movie is dripped in coolness; self-indulgent in the best ways possible; another unshowy performance from Brad Pitt; quickly paced without ever rushing.
The Downside: New York Mickey is almost more of a symbol than a character.
On The Side: The novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” by George V. Higgins, took place in Boston, not New Orleans.