Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in KILLING THEM SOFTLY
(Photo : Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions)
At one point in the Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly one character utters the words "America is not a country. It's a business." This cynicism permeates the film's 97 minutes and is decorated by satirical touches and a number of grittier instances.
Set during the 2008 election in run-down New Orleans, three lower end criminals concoct a plan to rob a mob-protected card game. They pull off the job, but complications arise for the trio when the mob brings in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to restore balance to local crime community.
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Dominik shows little restraint in this thriller and gets right in the audience's face from the get-go as a voice-over of an Obama speech resounds over black. Suddenly the speech is intermittently interrupted by the credits rolling over and slowly the camera moves toward an opening that feels like a release from the cacophony of the credits. However, as soon as the camera exits the tunnel, it is only to find a disheveled, almost apocalyptic looking New Orleans. The film seems to have a dark aura surrounding it visually until Frankie(Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) show up to discuss a new business proposition. Their repartee is humorous and their pathetic nature juxtaposes nicely with the grimy backdrop. In fact, all the characters in this film, save for Pitt's Cogan, share this common nature, albeit in different ways: Frankie, Russell, and their boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) are dumber than they realize; Driver (Richard Jenkins) is the mob's middle man who knows little about how the business operates; Markie Trattman's (Ray Liotta) hubris proves his undoing; and Mickey (James Gandolfini) is undergoing an identity crisis.
Those hoping that Dominik hues closer to the conventions of the gangster genre than to his languid, tonal foray into the western (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) will be pleasantly rewarded. The heist that sets off the film is an absolute thrill ride in its healthy running time and Dominik's decision to keep the camera tight on the characters gives the sequence a claustrophobic feel. A later scene in which one character gets pummeled by his own minions also keeps the handheld camera tight on the characters to give the scene a chaotic sense that keeps the audience uneasy.
The film does suffer at times from Dominik's overzealousness to experiment with style. One murder is portrayed in slow motion which adds a poetic element to the sequence, but almost contradicts Dominik's nihilistic thesis. During another sequence, one character injects himself with heroine as he converses with another. To express the junkie's state of mind, Dominik reverts to the slow motion again and repeatedly cuts to an abstract image to express the character's otherworldly transcendence. Every single time the character is about to speak, Dominik cuts to this image. It is rather humorous the first few times, but gets in the way of the scene's dramatic point and tests the viewer's patience.
However, the most detrimental stylistic choice relates to Dominik's political agenda. The film aims to portray the "America as a business" idea throughout and Dominik alludes to the economic crisis time and again to nail this point. As aforementioned, Obama's speech plays over the opening credits. However, throughout the film, President George W. Bush is heard talking about the economy during a gambling session, at an airport, in every single person's car radio, etc. In the first few instances, the inclusion of said speech remains simply background noise that works due to its subliminal nature. But after a while it becomes irksome as Dominik cuts to TVs at the end of scenes to emphasize the speeches. One character arrives at the airport and as the dolly follows him, it stops momentarily in front of a TV displaying George Bush talking about the economy. In another scene a car pulls into a street and parks and we hear Bush blabbering again on the economy over the radio. Even after the radio gets turned off, another car pulls into the same street playing the continuation of Bush's discourse. And it does not end there as this same motifs plays at nauseum in a number of other scenes. While the point is understood and eventually has a payoff, Dominik's indulgence ultimately makes his thesis lose its impact due to the preachy presentation that it undergoes.
What Dominik does get right is the strong cast headlined by Brad Pitt as Cogan. Cogan is a confident fellow and his initial conversation with Driver shows him as the most intelligent person in the film and the only one not marred by indecision or weakness. He is essentially a cynical embodiment of the prototypical American hero. Pitt is spellbinding as he reveals so much with his nonchalant charisma. His performance is unpredictable and subtle decisions reveal Cogan to be not only the most perverse and unsympathetic character, but also the most relatable one.
James Gandolfini steals the show as the complex Mickey, who is supposed to be a hired gun that is efficient at what he does. But he has a severe drinking problem and Gandolfini turns him into a rambling insecure man who does not really know who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He whines and complains at one point over his indecision and then suddenly jolts the audience during an aggressive verbal dispute with a prostitute. Despite the weakness in his words, this guy still looks like a volatile threat to Pitt's confident Cogan during one subtle moment.
Ray Liotta's middle tier gangster Trattman is a wimp, but Liotta gives him some dignity. Same goes for Scott McNairy's Frankie who has a tense encounter with Cogan in a bar during which he quietly turns the audience's sympathies away from Cogan and toward himself. Richard Jenkins adds an understated comic touch as the clueless middle-man who constantly frustrates Cogan. Ben Mendelsohn makes a quirky turn as the junkie Russell.
Unlike Dominik's last endeavor (Jesse James), Killing Them Softly moves at a relentless pace that matches the plot's violent nature. His stylistic experiments do not always work, but the tremendous veteran cast nearly nullifies these complaints and elevatess the film.
Other Film Reviews by David Salazar