Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta
In 2007 Andrew Dominik released The Assassination of Jesse James, a collaboration with Brad Pitt that shied away from the classic depiction of cowboys and delivered a revisionist imagining of the Wild West. 5 years later Dominik has made Killing Them Softly, a gangster film that shies away from the classic representation of the mob we have seen in numerous Scorsese pictures, and presents a revisionist portrayal of the American criminal underworld. In fact, Dominik’s latest is less a tale of the mob and more a fable about the importance of money in a country gripped by an economic crises and how wanting to be affluent can both make and break your life.
Based on the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins entitled Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly follows mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, who is brought in to help clean up the mess made when 2 smalltime criminals knock over a mob controlled card game. Meanwhile, America is crumbling under the weight of the economic crises gripping the nation and the uncertainty of the result of the impending presidential election.
The plot, however, isn’t the focus here. This isn’t a gangster film but more a film that happens to have gangsters as its focal point. The real story here is of a nation falling apart; the opening of the film juxtaposes imagery of a run-down American town, complete with boarded up shops and billboards of Obama & McCain promising “change”. This imagery is coupled with a speech from current president, George Bush, promising recovery from the crises but saying it is a long and difficult road ahead. As with all gangster films, there is emphasis on the idea that money is power, so what happens when the money dries up?
The characters that inhabit this money driven society are unpleasant human beings, there to show how greed can enhance but ultimately ruin your life. Brad Pitt is the confident and apparently untouchable Jackie who, it transpires, is just as desperate to earn a living as everyone else. Pitt’s performance is masterful and continues to enhance my view that he really is one of the finest & talented Hollywood stars. He turns Jackie into an almost likeable character who you want to root for come the films epilogue.
But it’s James Gandolfini who really stands out here; he plays Mickey, a hit man who has let his greed get to his head and now wallows in an excruciatingly unhappy life of hookers and booze, dreaming of ‘the one that got away’. Gandolfini is mesmerizing, flexing his acting muscles in a role so far away from the Tony Soprano role we know him for.
Dominik’s writing complements these fine performances effortlessly; this is a haunting and honest vision of mob life. The violence is brutal, the language disgusting and ultimately this is more a life you’re stuck in, rather than one you want to be in. Even for a fan of the classic gangster films such as myself, this honest depiction of their lives feels like a breath of fresh air.
Dominik’s direction is faultless too. There’s a constantly tense feeling as we view these characters plotting ways to further their lives through money or murder. The use of lengthy, extreme close-ups put us in the heart of the action and makes the more violent scenes unbearably edgy – the robbery of the card-game being the films standout scene. But Dominik also manages to inject the odd moment of comedy amongst the darkness; the way Russell, one of the smalltime crooks, attempts to blowup a car is one of the most visually hilarious things I’ve seen in a while.
Killing Them Softly is marketed as a gangster film, but what we end up with is a film that is much more precious. It’s a tale of economic struggle told from the point of view of those that you would think unlikely to suffer in such a situation. It’s a film that shows the power of money; a commodity that makes the world go round, but also has the power to ‘put your lights out’.