Andrew Dominik; famous for his directorial debut with the controversial “ozploitation” biography Chopper, followed by the over-titled yet underrated masterpiece The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, returns for his third installment Killing Them Softly, an adaptation to the George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade.
Modernised to bring the story to a more prevalent time period, Killing Them Softly takes place in 2008 during the run for American presidency, rather than the mid-70s. The movie centres reservedly on a distinct number of males at the bottom and high end of the social economic ladder in what appears to be an almost desolate and bleak industrial setting. Two ex-convicts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Medelsohn) are approached by a small time crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) known as Squirrel, to pull off a small job with a big payoff.
Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) runs an illegal card game that holds a well-known and forgiven history for being held up and knocked off by Markie himself. Squirrel sees opportunity with the social distrust in Markie and sets upon holding it up once more, knowing that Markie will be seen as guilty by prior association and be left to face the repercussions. With trepidations about Russell and being oblivious to the consequential arrival of hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) to find the truth, Squirrel enlists the two ex-cons for the job. The movie then plays out in two layers; on the surface you have the crime drama which progresses at an engrossing and concise pace for a run time close to 90 minutes, but underneath that you have the sub-textual plot where the heart of the movie lies, which is in the social economic collapse of America.
The opening scene of Killing Them Softly is an almost perplexing concatenation of speeches made by Barack Obama in the run for his presidency, and sounds that would not be unfitting in a horror movie. This sets a defining path for which of the two layers you wish to progress down and it may take more than one viewing to appreciate the latter. As a crime thriller Killing Them Softly will appeal right off the bat with consistently stellar performances from what is a minimalistic amount of characters, and educated direction and writing from Dominik, resulting in perfectly executed scenes and set pieces in regards to length and narrative necessity combined with none intrusive characterisation.
With the exception of Markie there is very little explained backstory to any of the characters, yet from the instance we meet them we are able to ascertain their lifestyle and personality traits. This comes from subtleties that do not insult the viewer’s intelligence, incidental things such as the Australian drug addict Russell sweating whilst eating an ice cream on what appears to be a winters day, lets us know an antithesis characteristic about him which differs from the norm, whilst not spelling it out with dialog or juxtaposition.
Performance wise the cast are reaching and surpassing their renowned standards, and have managed to inhabit characters that maintain a devoted interest despite the fact that in some way they are all unlikable criminals with no clear protagonist. McNairy does a competent job of portraying someone who is outside of the law yet very cautious and afraid with very few options, James Gandolfini has a surprising appearance an aging hitman in the middle of a downwards spiral into drink and depression whose misogyny helps to downplay the only female character with a speaking role, and Pitt becomes the centrepiece of the narrative with an understated portrayal of a man who has been in the business long enough to become accustom to the underlying mechanics of organised crime.
The tallest standing performance however is Mendelsohn as Russell, an Australian heroin addicted dog thief with a warped sexual mentality and abhorrent personality, who delivers every line of slurred dialog and uncomfortable sweating movement believably throughout.
Some people may be taken aback by the ending to Killing Them Softly but those who have followed the previously stated sub-textual layer to the plot will find an almost satirical take on American politics. Dominik has managed to encase a rather simplistic crime drama in heavily yet downplayed views on the American economy. There is no real musical score to the movie, but what you do have are sounds that are compiled and relevant to each scene. Often when crimes are being committed they will be backlit by the sound of the on-going presidential debate of the economic crisis, narrating the irony and comparisons between social classes. Opposing that when plans are being set in motion or discussions are happening, you will often be presented with sounds of machinery or trains, as a signification to the wheels in motion of the lower and higher corporate machines. It is a very subtextualised and an unexpected integration into the genre.
That is not to be said that the movie cannot be enjoyed without regard to American politics. The drama is consistently engrossing and the dialogue feels organic and believable. Some of the exchanges, especially in the first act of the movie, are highly explicit in language and sexual nature, but due to such good characterisation it is appropriate and enjoyable.
Helping the delivery of the thoughtfully paced story is the cinematography by Greg Fraser. Ironically the scenes of barren industrial dwellings look beautiful, and you would be far pressed to find any scenes that do not involve the camera being perfectly placed as to not take you out of the drama, which counter-intuitive cutting has done to spoil many movies. That is not to say that that the camera is afraid to get up close and personal, there are two scenes of extreme violence in the movie, one of which is a staggeringly realistic fight scene that, whilst wince inducing, has almost an impetuous elegance to it as the close quarters camera seems to almost try and look away.
As a crime drama Killing Them Softly has earned its place on our screens as an engaging exciting romp, but with its complex undertones it has earned a reason for us to return to it and study further as an interesting insight to American politics.
by Tom Green