This used to be easy for me. Dredd was a simple film to review. They’re stuck in a building, there’s lots of slow motion, everyone’s face explodes... bam: one thousand words! Right in the butt.
But for Killing Them Softly, I may need to think a little harder.
Adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s (Chopper and *deep breath* The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) crime thriller stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, the underworld enforcer who’s called in to tie up all the loose ends left after Ray Liotta’s mob-controlled poker game is held up by two amateur criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn).
Set against the always cheery backdrop of contemporary-recession America, there’s an uncanny air of grim realism surrounding Killing Them Softly. Stylistically (and true to its literary roots), it’s reminiscent of those classic slow-burn thrillers from the 70s, a la Rolling Thunder, with a strong emphasis placed on character development and a suspenseful build-up towards an inevitably bloody climax. But at the same time, a thin vein of jet black humour can be seen running throughout the picture. Frequent news broadcasts of Barack Obama delivering sweeping, patriotic speeches about the American peoples’ unity clashes with the perpetually downtrodden nature of this on-screen world, furbishing the film with a sharp satirical edge.
How much you enjoy Killing Them Softly will likely depend on your level of tolerance for lengthy dialogue scenes. In Tarantino-esque style, Dominik wants us to fully understand these characters, regardless of their overall importance to the plot. Take James Gandolfini’s extended cameo, for example. His grouchy mob hitman, Mickey, arrives to help Cogan with the necessary targets. These two men sit in a largely deserted bar, where we learn all about Mickey’s troubles with the law over a spot of botched geese hunting, along with bothersome marital issues and a rather obvious drinking problem. Only after all this ground has been covered do we get round to the whole assassination job crux.
Either you’ll become fully engrossed in these sequences of flowing discourse, or you’ll be waiting for Dominik to hurry up and GET ON WITH IT. I found my patience being tried on only one occasion, luckily, in a scene where the two poker game-robbing smack heads can’t keep a crucial conversation going due to the overpowering narcotics they’ve just fired into their bloodstreams. It could have been over in two minutes, but instead drags on as Mendelsohn’s layabout keeps slipping in and out of full consciousness, while McNairy repeatedly bellows the same basic questions at him until I want to kick a puppy.
Slow as this breed of pacing may be, it’s an experience that’s absolutely worth sitting through. Dominik’s careful attention to detail is exactly what will help place Killing Them Softly high up on many a cinephile’s (creepy word) ‘Top XX Films of the Year’ list. Not that there isn’t some basic bloodletting to look out for as well, though. But in keeping with the title, there’s a pleasantly understated side to the infrequent-yet-graphic violence that’s depicted here. Save for one rather angelically choreographed take-out, death just... happens here. Sudden, shocking and unpleasant: just as it would be.
I don’t pay nearly as much attention to sound design during my reviews as I should (feels guilty, man), but in this instance I need to make a special exception. Anything audible – from the slam of a car door, to the pounding of fists against a victim’s bloodied face; and a shotgun blast that cuts through the night in terrifying fashion – is packed with a staggering amount of oomph. I was taken aback on multiple occasions and it remains to be seen whether this effect will be replicated for home video. The actual soundtrack, meanwhile, is a memorable assortment of country and blues music (Ketty Lester and Johnny Cash feature) on hand to lend Killing Them Softly a tinge of golden oldie quality.
Ah, but I know what you’re thinking... do we get to hear the infamous ‘Ray Liotta Laugh’? Well rest easy, Ray fans, because we most certainly do. It’s been a while since Turbulence, but those manic cackles are once again unleashed upon our delicate, unsuspecting ears; and Liotta’s happy face remains just as terrifying as ever. Conal Cochran could patent it for the next wave of Silver Shamrock masks.
Funny thing: I’m almost finished and Brad Pitt has barely even been mentioned. I think it’s no secret that in addition to boasting a perfect bone structure (complemented here by a well-groomed goatee), Pitt’s also a talented thespian. Usually, anyway. The less said about Troy the better.
The tip of an already rock solid cast (almost forgot; Richard Jenkins fans are in for a treat), Pitt comfortably slips right into Jackie Cogan (who I could swear remains unnamed for the full running time, that is unless I missed a stray line of dialogue – corrections on a postcard to the usual address). Though not introduced until the first act has concluded, Cogan instantly commands our attention. He’s superficially easy going, but Pitt leaves us in no doubt over the man’s ability as a professional killer thanks to his trademark steely-eyed coolness that suddenly makes all male audience members feel obliged to hand in their man cards.
At the time of writing, Killing Them Softly is still roughly two weeks away from being released outside of the UK, Ireland and Spain; and a there’s a whole two months to go before its US debut. This staggered release schedule means it’ll be an interesting journey for the film, which has already attracted near-unanimous critical praise. Whether or not it gels quite so smoothly with audiences the world over is another story, but anyone searching for a piece of truly mature filmmaking should jump at the chance to see Dominik’s latest cinematic endeavour.
Really, it was so grown up, I had to go watch something stupid afterwards. As luck would have it, I’d recently imported Samurai Cop, which was bad on so many wonderful levels... but I needed it.