Release Date: 21st September, 2012
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta
The previous collaboration of Australian director Andrew Dominik and the professional Mr Jolie Brad Pitt was the sprawling masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (and breathe). Its wholly unromantic take on a frequently romanticised hero and striking visual style evokes a real 1800s postcard feel to the film, with a staggering central performance from Pitt. Their latest is probably the follow-up furthest from your expectations, an ensemble piece with a slick noir aesthetic, stylised violence and a megaphone for the recent economic crisis.
Indeed, though Pitt has been prominent in promotional material, his enforcer Jackie Cogan doesn’t first appear until roughly half an hour into the film. The plot centres around a ramshackle heist of a poker game by the unemployable Frankie (Monsters’ Scoot McNairy) and his “nervous friend” and heroin addict Russell (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, recently seen as Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises – he’s a different kind of slimy here). They frame club manager Markie (Ray Liotta, who shines in the robbery scene where he attempts to subtly manipulate Russell while knowing he is irredeemably screwed), and the mob bring in Cogan to hunt down those responsible. Pitt’s Cogan is a highly efficient assassin, somewhat reminiscent of The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, deducing the true nature of the crime and quietly despairing at the incompetence of everybody else involved.
The narrative structure also owes a debt to Tarantino, unfolding in an episodic manner with many thematically relevant – but otherwise pointless – encounters between the jumble of characters. It’s an odd style for a relatively short film; it felt like a condensed HBO mini-series, with characters weaving in and out and nobody featuring prominently enough to be the “main” character until Pitt in the final act. James Gandolfini’s depressive hitman Mickey, called in to work a hit of Jackie’s that’s a bit too close to home, provides no narrative relevance, instead acting as a sad, drunken foil to Cogan’s ultimate professionalism. There is also an undercurrent of commentary on the recession that goes pretty far beyond the under; I doubt very much that everybody listens to political debate on the radio all the time. And Barack Obama featured so much I wonder if he picked up a paycheck.
The film moves between a rather conventional visual aesthetic with scenes of highly stylised violence or distortions. In one scene, Russell gets high and we see from his point of view, which consists mostly of a blinding heroin haze, muffled conversation, and the odd blackout. Elsewhere, a murder takes place in slick slow-motion with a pop soundtrack; the Scorsese homage would be evident even if the scene didn’t involve Ray Liotta. But dialogue scenes are simple back-and-forth, the odd long shot, etc. While these scenes are excellent on their own, in the context of the entire film’s aesthetic, it can become quite jarring.
Killing Them Softly passes without the audience’s emotional centre disturbed too much. In the end we’re pretty much as cynical as Cogan, surrounded by frickin’ idiots and only wanting to get his payment and to get out. Not that it’s an unenjoyable film – like the Coens’ Burn After Reading, it’s a study of some pretty unlikeable characters, and how their stupidities converge. The ride is pretty engaging, and its message is clear if a little pedestrian, but it’s just another job for Cogan – forget this one, and onto the next.