Based on the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly (formerly titled Cogan’s Trade) follows mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) who is called in to find out who was responsible for the robbery of a mob card game and to “take care of them,” with the help of an extra hitman, Mickey (James Gandolfini), brought in from New York.
Evoking some of the great crime films from that stand-out ‘70s era, Killing Them Softly is a bold, dense film that’s more talky than you might expect but the writing is so good and the performances so pitch-perfect that the tense dialogue-heavy scenes sore, utterly gripping with every word, whether it be a tangential conversation about the nefarious afternoon plans of one of the robbers or weighty discussions about American ideals.
The super slow-motion and striking music utilized liberally in some of the more violent (and I stress the word violent) sequences should feel at odds with the extended conversations but under the assured, confident direction of Andrew Dominik – who also made the masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and brilliant Chopper – it works rather exquisitely. He also manages to somehow make the film very funny too, in that Pulp Fiction-esque way where the cleaning up of a body is more a problem than the fact someone has just been killed. In the same way as Nicolas Winding Refn did with last year’s masterful Drive, Dominik achieves just the right tone while sidestepping the trappings of crassness.
The cast is worth the price of admission alone. Pitt, reuniting with his Jesse James director Dominik, is on absolute top form as Jackie Cogan, effortlessly cool with his slicked back hair, goatee, leather jacket and calm demeanour as he goes about the business of sorting out the mess that’s been forced upon him. We also have Gandolfini, fantastic as the world-weary “New York Mickey” who seems more interested in getting drunk and sleeping around than doing what he was paid to do, as well as Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy (who some may recognise from low-budget alien flick Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn. Across the board the casting is top-notch and the performances terrific.
The film is set before President Obama was elected and is not exactly subtle with its social commentary about modern day America and how the idea of being “one people” is nonsense. The political aspect is a tad on-the-nose but there’s something to be admired about a film going all out in that respect, as bold in its social commentary as it is in its visceral, gut-wrenching scenes of violence.
What may seem like just another generic crime thriller on the surface is elevated to a level of its own thanks to impressive technical filmmaking, a smart script and brilliant performances. Unashamedly throwing its audience into the deep end of things with dense conversations that go on longer than your average film of its type, this is an uncompromising and handsomely made modern day crime tale that puts a fresh spin on a familiar set-up. Dominik has now solidified himself as a true talent of modern day filmmaking, able to bring something exciting to whatever material he chooses. One of the year’s best films.
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