George V. Higgins' 1974 pulp-crime novel Cogan's Trade gets a modern revamping with an intensified sociopolitical twist in Andrew Dominik's newly titled Killing Them Softly. Though the underlying themes of this microcosmic tale of retribution are often as on-the-nose as some of the harsh hits throughout, with its ambitions fully realised and the help of an outsider's eye it transcends its genre trappings making one of the most aspiring crime pictures in many years.
An ex-con hires two younger men to hit a mob-protected poker game after second guessing the direction of the mob's counterblow, an outcome that will go in the three's favour as they leave clean with $50,000. In steps Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) also hired, this time by the mob to find those responsible for the robbery. Jackie is an intriguing kind of enforcer, an intermediator of both political and financial wellbeing playing off public (street) perception to see that business carries on as usual without truth disrupting commerce.
Killing Them Softly certainly concerns itself with contemporary politics, the current economic climate, and the ramifications on the business sector; organised crime is presented candidly here as a delicate business also under the strain of the recession. It is, after all, a trade like any other and despite the gun welding personnel of the involved, their finances are not bulletproof either. Writer/director Andrew Dominik has stated that he has always viewed crime films as a representation of capitalism, that no other genre acceptably features central characters selfishly crusading for personal gain. Dominik's point might seem patent at first but is entirely accurate, especially as he takes this underlying theme and pushes it to the forefront be be examined and exerted in his film, making an airtight case. The results are severe in both execution and effect, with Obama's (then campaigning for presidency) speeches providing regular commentary on the desperate acts of violence displayed throughout the film.
The film is hardly homework, though, requiring not even a basic knowledge of current political happenings to enjoy. Filling in for the overly simple plot is an incredible array of characters expertly played by a note perfect ensemble; Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters) are wonderful as the depraved duo who hold up the poker game, their bumbling and sophomoric sensibilities providing the majority of the film's laughs. While James Gandolfini steals the show with a short appearance as Jackie's old friend, flown in to take care of an organised hit. Though staggeringly funny at times, his Mickey is a broken man whose misfortune has crippled him, figuratively speaking. His outward musings of his thin marriage and the possibility of doing more time is delivered with such heart and conviction that this unlikable man introduced for a matter of minutes becomes a tragically sympathetic character who's zest and professonality has gone down with the economy. His choice of business has destroyed him. Brad Pitt hardly leads the show but his Jackie Cogan is interesting beyond the instantly classic exterior; Jackie is capable of great violence but unlike the others likes to remain distant, often physically distant, but also away from the emotions that death can bring. Jackie comforts his prey to a degree, easing them into a false sense of security before the deathblow.
There is a sadness, a biting nihilism to the story and a desolate bleak atmosphere expertly maintained from start to finish. Dominik and director of photography Greig Fraser give Killing Them Softly a fitting end-of-the-world vibe that sticks even through the film's many successful bouts of humour. The film also includes some visually arresting moments (some effective with others falling on unnecessary) to heighten the humdrum nature of the story, especially during more violent moments where he never fails to make you flinch. It's reassuring to know that a filmmaker can still make violence uneasy to an audience. Even his off-key treatment of the opening credits stands you on edge before the first shot has even been fired.
Killing Them Softly is an unapologetic indictment of the 'American Dream', hardly new territory or much to be proud of by now. Given the almost alien representation of the America we're used to seeing through Hollywood, the film's desolate locales, the morally devoid characters, and the bitterly infused words of Brad Pitt in the film's final line, we get an uncharacteristically ambitious crime film that plans to entertain as well as backup its ideology and succeeds at doing both. Whether Killing Them Softly will gain a major audience from its food-for-thought approach to genre filmmaking, we can only hope, as this is a cut above the rest and Andrew Dominik is now going 3 for 3.