Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy
Running Time: 97 min
Release: 21st Sept
Killing Them Softly sees Brad Pitt return to working with Andrew Dominik, director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Adapted from George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, it’s a movie where crime is disgusting, people are filthy and Death might be wearing nicotine coloured sunglasses.
Pitt is Jackie Cogan, an enforcer for some unnamed Boston crime organisation that is deeply unhappy that an underground poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) has been knocked off. What the audience knows that all named above don’t is that it was done by two very minor stick up men; Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The committee want to find out what exactly happened. Enter Jackie, in a cloud of cigarette smoke and listening to The Man Comes Around.
Jackie Cogan is an incredibly cool character, as clear eyed as he is close mouthed. No extraneous details, no fanfare, no bluster and no lustre; just a guy who does what needs doing. He also marks the first time in recent memory that Brad Pitt hasn’t looked glamorous; he’s wrinkled, greasy, a little unkempt. But then everything is here, from the bar he meets his handler (Richard Jenkins) in, to Mickey, another enforcer from New York, a role not so much played by James Gandolfini as lived in, stretched out and devoured.
Pitt is great, McNairy revelatory and Mendelsohn repulsive. Every performance has something to recommend it, but Gandolfini is this movie’s ace in the hole. He has two scenes, both of which are just him whining about his problems and codifying the air of nihilism and despair that’s oozing out of the film’s pores. He’s also absolutely terrifying. If you’ve seen True Romance you know that Gandolfini can be scary as hell, but would you have known you’d be retreating while he was sitting and just staring right through you? It’s one of the best supporting turns in a long time as it does precisely that; supports the other actors and the entire film along with them.
While the actors are doing their level best to pull your head so far forward in your seat you’re nearly kneeling on the floor, Dominik and cinematographer Greig Fraser are making the disgusting, stupid, violent place these characters live visually fascinating. There are two worlds they shoot, the one where everyone is in pain, and the one where you’re about to die and everything becomes slower, less real, more beautiful. The hyper real, extra normal deaths are stylistically miles away from the appalling familiarity and violence of everything else in the film, but they’re magnetic and draw you in even as you’re disgusted.
Where Dominik falls down slightly is in the subtext hosed over proceedings. News reports and political speeches are in the background in most scenes, but are played so loudly that they can’t be ignored. The message isn’t exactly subtle and by the time Jackie refers to it even the most absent minded of observers will have gotten the point. For a movie so well crafted it is jarring, but it doesn’t detract too much from one of the most fascinating and compelling films of the year.