When petty local criminals Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and a terrific Ben Mendelsohn) decide to roll-over a high stakes, Mob-protected poker game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), they have little or know understanding of the butterfly effect it will have on the flailing underworld economy. With Markie beaten to within an inch of his life and the guilty duo in hiding, hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is brought in to clean up the mess. Reaching out to his washed-up former partner Mickey (James Gandolfini) to aid with the disposal of Frankie and Russell, Cogan begins the process of “killing them softly”, all under the watchful eye of Richard Jenkins’ unnamed Mob emissary.
It would be fair to say that Dominik is not exactly subtle in updating George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade for a post-crash, 21st century America. Political subtext is literally plastered to billboards, with Obama/McCain campaign propaganda seemingly adorning every wall, car radio station and bar television set. Yet it all somehow just about works in the context of the film, as each character scrabbles for all the loose change they can lay their hands on amidst the dollars, drugs and detritus. As Cogan himself states, America is no longer a country, but a “business”. He adds: “In America, you’re on your own”.
Continuing a clearly fruitful working relationship with Dominik, Pitt is once again on the top of his game as the efficient, softly-softly contract killer, a consummate professional who despises the sobbing and pleading that inevitably comes with close-quarter hits. Killing Them Softly is by no means a one-man show. Such is the quality of the performances across the supporting cast, its difficult to single any one for singular praise. McNairy and Mendelsohn are both completely believable as the bumbling, brain-dead crooks, Liotta and Gandolfini are both endlessly pitiable in their own ways, and Jenkins is one again a calming influence in a fish-bowl of chaotic criminality.
It seems bizarre to admit that Killing Them Softly may in fact be Dominik’s least successful film to-date, held back slightly by some heavy-handed satire and unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Yet, make no mistake – even a not-quite top draw Dominik effort still stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of features released in anyone year. Though perhaps too deep down and dirty for the Cannes jury, Killing Them Softly remains a supremely sharp, savagely swift (at just 97 mins) deconstruction of the American Dream, male machismo and the modern gangster movie.
Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is our Film of the Week.