Killing Them Softly

Dir: Andrew Dominik

Stars: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini

On the one hand, Killing Them Softly is a visually stunning, highly stylised and cleverly written crime thriller. On the other, it is a biting political commentary about the current state of America. Whilst it might be based on a book from the 1970s, there are many similarities between the Bush and Nixon presidencies. Indeed, Killing Them Softly is a film that could we have been made in that era; it’s steeped in ‘70s paranoia and style.

In desperate need of money, Frankie (McNairy) and Russell (Mendelsohn) decide to knock-off Markie Trattman’s (Liotta) poker game. The robbery goes to plan and they appear to have the perfect fall guy in the guise of Trattman. Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is hired by the mob to investigate what happened and to dispose of the perpetrators. His job is made much easier when unwashed junkie Russell decides to brag about it to one of Cogan’s men. Jackie drafts in Mickey (Gandolfini) to help him carry out retribution, but Mickey seems to be unravelling at the same rate as the financial crisis in America.

Killing Them Softly could have been a tense action thriller about Jackie tracking down Frankie and Russell. However, Dominik’s film takes a different approach. His films have all centred on killers (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James..), but this outing takes a much larger overview of the society in which they are operating. Political speeches from the last US election campaign are prominent throughout, and moving the action to New Orleans shows where his intentions lie. The backdrop of poverty, desperation and dissolution seeps into every corner of the celluloid.

Our hapless protagonists Frankie and Russell, wonderfully portrayed by McNairy and Mendelsohn, are entirely believable; you can almost smell the stench of Russell permeating off the screen. They are desperate men in desperate times. Dominik’s film is a meditation on crime and the disenfranchised in American society. Pitt’s character’s menace comes from the nonchalance and the ‘every-day’ way he approaches his work. His demeanour is only ruffled at the end with his scathing indictment of the country: America has never been about being one people, or one society.

Killing Them Softly is very stylistically entrenched in ‘70s crime films. However, Dominik uses modern techniques to portray drug hazes, and imbues a death scene with such beauty and awe through slow motion, multiple perspectives and a wonderful soundtrack. As the bullets fly, we are serenaded by Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Indeed, the music serves as a contrast to the acts of murder and brutality, making them seem commonplace and disengaging the viewer from the real horror. However, Dominik certainly knows how to ramp-up the stakes when he wants to.

The end result it a highly cynical and stylish film which desensitises its audience from the action taking place. The cinematography is sumptuous and inventive; reflecting the downbeat nature of the narrative. The acting is superb on all fronts, and it is all painstaking and lovingly weaved together by one of today’s most innovative and impressive directors.

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