Following up his masterful sophomore film The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Australian director Andrew Dominik returns with recession-era gangland tale Killing Them Softly. The film is more concerned with commentary than action, making for a potent yet troublesome modern gangster yarn.
Adapted for the present day from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly concerns hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he arrives in post-Katrina New Orleans to tackle the suspects behind a heist on a mob poker game. The perpetrators are Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of petty crooks who soon find themselves way out of their depth.
The film opens with a jarring credit sequence, which juxtaposes the ragged, windswept image of looser Frankie with a hopeful oration from Barak Obama. It is campaign time in the US, but this means nothing for the first rung of the criminal underworld. Frankie meets risible heroin addict Russell, who is engaging in a frivolous stint as a dog walker. While Obama’s optimism contradicts this image Dominik soon inserts a more recognizable reference, George W. Bush’s unsettling address about salvaging the fledgling economy.
Putting socioeconomic preoccupations aside momentarily, Killing Them Softly is an unconventional gangster film. The film is comprised almost entirely of two-handers. Cogan’s introduction takes the form of a short hop from car to car (set to Johnny Cash’s When The Man Comes Around), before a long conversation with a character identified as Driver portrayed by Richard Jenkins. Driver is a distant benefactor of the criminal underworld and he likes to keep his hands clean. He is slyly attempting to financially undercut Cogan as he carries out his hit list.
Along with gangster genre heavyweight Ray Liotta as ill-fated poker king Markie Trattman, James Gandolfini joins the cast as Cogan’s fellow hitman Mickey; he is an old pro turned alcoholic sex addict. Gandolfini’s presence makes for a number of undeniably hilarious exchanges with Pitt, yet his character becomes tiresome. Mickey’s response to the financial downturn is to become a misogynistic mess of a man and he is perhaps the most deserving of a sticky end.
While Dominik managed to maintain interest for almost three hours with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, he does not fare so well with Killing Them Softly. Running at around ninety minutes, the film surprisingly tests the patience more than its predecessor. This is largely down to the two-hander structure, wretched characters and relative lack of dramatic action.
When all is said and done however, Killing Them Softly is still an effective filmic statement. It is a biting commentary on how the capitalist structure affects the moral choices made by individuals, regardless of whether we are talking about the banks or the criminal underworld. The film grimly equates both worlds and Brad Pitt’s final monologue feels irrefutably on the money.