Andrew Dominik deliver’s a smart, politically outraged spin on George V Higgins’ 1974 Mob-against-The Man novel.
Wreathed in a fragrant cloud of cigarette smoke and the embers of the American Dream, Andrew Dominik’s smart follow-up to 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a blunt clip around the ear of contemporary US politics. Stripped from George V Higgins’ 1974 Mob-against-The Man novel, 'Cogan’s Trade', Killing Them Softly shifts the story from Boston to New Orleans circa 2008, where the wounds left by Katrina have yet to be infected by the looming financial crisis.
The presidential election is in full swing, and as the city retches from the stink of its own decay, optimistic campaign slogans such as ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ pour from car stereos and television sets like sick jokes made at the expense of the forgotten underclass. Unambiguously, Killing Them Softly is about taking responsibility for your actions and dealing with the consequences of your failings. No one endorses this sentiment more vociferously than leather-clad hired gun, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), whose ice-cool entrance is accompanied quite brilliantly by Johnny Cash’s antihero hymn ‘The Man Comes Around’.
After a pair of two-dime crooks (Scoot McNairy and Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn) fail to cover their tracks following an audacious raid on a syndicate run poker game, Cogan is brought in to clean up the mess. But his affiliation with framed fall guy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) means he’ll have to sub-contract the hit to an old pal, prostitute-devouring East Coast assassin Mickey (a show-stealing James Gandolfini), who’s past his prime and ultimately more trouble than he’s worth.
Though narratively and stylistically indebted to the granite machismo cultivated by ’70s crime flicks The Getaway, Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection, Dominik’s aspirations far outreach that of your average hard-edged homage. Here the characters are more grotesque (Pitt’s included; don’t let the sangfroid and slick attire fool you), the dialogue more chauvinistic and the message more cynical than in those genre touchstones.
This is an uncommercially pessimistic, grubby portrait of a nation on its knees, in which dirty hands wash dirty hands and where there simply are no good guys left. Even moments of technical splendour – a drive-by execution stands out for its breathtaking slo-mo choreography – are purposefully juxtaposed against scenes of sobering inhumanity, most notably a gratuitously ugly dust-up involving Markie and a pair of vindictive heavies.
As a polemical appraisal of the Obama administration and the era of capitalist greed that preceded it, Killing Them Softly is sure to ruffle a few feathers (especially as its release falls a few months shy of the next US election). And yet the point, while unapologetically preachy, is never laboured. It’s in no way easy listening, but Dominik’s voice (artistic and thematic) has never been so persuasive.
Dominik. Pitt. Liotta. Gandolfini. Seems a safe bet there’s something fallacious about that title.
Lean and punchy. Comes on a little strong, though.
"America isn’t a country, it’s a business."