A simple synopsis of Andrew Domink’s Killing Them Softly makes it sound rather run-of-the-mill.
It concerns professional enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) being brought in by a gang of mobsters to investigate the robbery of one of their high-stake card games. However, when you throw in excellent performances, a strong script, and some original and interesting direction from Dominik, Killing Them Softly becomes so much more.
The most striking parts of this feature are the exceptional performances from the whole cast. Pitt leads the film strongly, putting in yet another towering performance.
There is something about the actor that can make even the most immoral characters appear as likable and charming. Here, Cogan is a ruthless killer who lies and cheats his way through the film, but he appears also as the most amiable character in the piece. James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Monsters’ Scoot McNairy all perform admirably too, creating a rounded, professional ensemble.
Thematically, Killing Them Softly is not subtle in its message. Told in a backdrop of the 2008 US general election, the post-economic crash/post-hurricane Katrina streets of New Orleans are almost a character in themselves. With boarded up houses and closed down businesses in the background of many scenes, the mass unemployment and unhappiness of the country are referenced constantly.
Littered with extracts of John McCain and Barack Obama’s speeches in the run up to the election, Killing Them Softly is as much a comment on modern day America than anything else. Cogan believes America to be a business, and uses this as a justification for his rather nefarious deeds.
It seems that none of the characters really care about who would win this election, but hold deep reservations about politics and politicians in general. In one particular shot, a torn and ragged ‘Hope’ poster is shown in passing, reinforcing the scepticism of politics implied throughout the film.
After 2007’s critical darling The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, fans and critics alike have been waiting for a follow up from Andrew Dominik, and the director does not disappoint.
The film is littered with interesting and surprising shots, and it is kept very intimate with a constant use of handheld cameras. One particular stand out moment is the introduction of Jackie Cogan, who we first see sitting in his car, casually smoking, while The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash plays in the background. The sequence perfectly sets up Cogan as a character.
The only notable criticism can be aimed at the length of time spent dealing with Ray Liotta’s Markie. Not only does his subplot have very little to do with the overall story, it becomes rather distracting. This is not helped by the characters themselves also pointing out how unnecessary it is. This aside, Dominik handles the film professionally and successfully.
Killing Them Softly then, is quite a surprise. Dark, twisted and always entertaining, this expertly scripted and exceptionally acted feature could turn out to be one of the revelations of 2012.