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Brad Pitt is a hitman tasked with cleaning up a messy mob affair in Andrew Dominik's lean, mean, darkly comic thriller. Adapted from a mid-70s crime novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is specifically set in the autumn of 2008, as America sits in the grip of the Financial Crisis and the political grandstanding of the Bush / Obama presidential election. This pointed period setting gives an unlikely and enthralling thematic backdrop to Dominik’s considered, atmospheric action, where talk and tension often take pride of place over shoot-outs and spectacle. Though a whole hour shorter than the western epic The Asssasination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, there’s still plenty to chew on in Killing Them Softly, and there's an incredible ensemble cast (including James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard & Richard Jenkins) to boot.
'Bleak' is a word that can cover a multitude of sins in filmmaking. It might mean joyless austerity. It might mean you can expect to finish the film feeling miserable and not much else. Or it might mean that we're in for a dose of misanthropy, and it's this last sense that most applies to Andrew Dominik's adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade. Killing Them Softly offers a highly misanthropic vision of humanity, but is nevertheless entertaining, with tremendous performances by the ensemble cast fleshing out already juicy low life characters.
Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn in particular make an excellent double act as Frankie and Russell, a pair of - not to put too fine a point on it - idiots who, as idiots so often do in noirish genres, get in over their heads with some dangerous people. Frankie (McNairy) is the more personable of the pair, and it's Frankie whose relative naivety will later contrast painfully with the man embodying this film's black heart: Brad Pitt in the small but pivotal role of professional enforcer Jackie Cogan, whose contribution to his marketplace is businesslike and brutal violence combined with lengthy speeches.
The bricks and mortar of the piece are standard cinematic thuggery and associated gangsterish preoccupations with hookers and drugs, elegantly photographed. But it's the cultural backdrop that the writer-director would presumably like to stand out as a point of difference compared your run of the mill genre flick, as media reports running throughout the talky yet visceral action draw parallels between financially motivated brutality and currently topical free market driven economic chaos. It won't win any points for subtlety but perhaps earns some credit for being here at all in a film that's otherwise mostly about watching men take each other apart and deliver diverting soliloquies brimming with self-justification.
In a nutshell: Complex and problematic in a rather wonderful way, Killing Them Softly has flaws more interesting than the perfections of some films, and would in any case be worth seeing for its performances alone, which are among 2012's most horribly fascinating.
By Catherine Bray
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