Killing Them Softly

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Andrew Dominik. Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, James Gandolfini 18 cert, general release, 97 min

Forget subtexts: Brad Pitt shines in a street-smart and funny thriller, writes DONALD CLARKE

FORGET THE much gossiped- about documentary that suggests President Obama worships toads and eats children in pies. This grimly impressive, abrasively funny thriller from Andrew Dominik might just be the most fervent anti-Barack film released to date.

Before the Australian director begins reaching for his lawyers, we should clarify that the film offers an even more jaundiced take on the conservative worldview. An updating of George V Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly takes place during the bizarre closing months of 2008. While the world’s economy implodes, Obama and John McCain fight for the opportunity to mop up the bloody mess. Little smidgeons of Obama’s soaring rhetoric sneak their way onto the soundtrack.

But the film’s ultimate message – confirmed in a pithy, deeply pessimistic closing line – is that America will always be driven by greed, covetousness and violence. No we can’t. Cynicism you can believe in.

The effort to layer the action with explicit political messages often seems a bit forced. But Dominik has still managed to fashion a very nifty, street-smart entertainment from Higgins’s

1974 book. Despite the presence of Brad Pitt, star of the director’s thoughtful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly is more reminiscent of his earlier, grubbier Chopper. This is a world of smart idiots and deluded geniuses.

Dominik confirms his credentials with a magnificent opening heist sequence. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play a pair of scruffy urban layabouts hired to rob a mob-tied poker game run by local screw-up Markie (Ray Liotta). Blending comedy with tension in equal measure, the director employs sinister hisses, throbs and rumbles as the pair make their way down an awful corridor towards a meeting of Dickensian cutpurses.

This is not the sort of film in which such schemes progress without a hitch. One of the robbers subsequently boasts about the heist, word spreads, and Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer hired to clean up the mess, begins closing in on the hapless opportunists.

Dominik forgoes the post-modern cultural feedback that colours so much of contemporary crime cinema. True, this is a film in which hitmen in cars discuss professional strategies – the title references Cogan’s preference for making his kills as painlessly as possible – but, rather than aping Tarantino, those scenes remind us how much that director owes to literary forerunners such as Higgins.

Still, some viewers may find the archness more than a little alienating. The characters in Killing Them Softly (only Roberta Flack fans will, incidentally, celebrate that unfortunate title) do not talk as human beings talk. The heightened dialogue is every bit as artificial as is the plot’s neat congruence with contemporaneous politics.

No matter. For all the filth, bad hair and spurting arteries, the film is not aiming for gritty realism. There’s a touch of allegory here, a taste of Jacobean tragedy there. But this universe is no less unreal than that of, say, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s pictures.

Which brings us neatly to Brad Pitt. Despite recent advances in The Tree of Life and Moneyball, the actor is too beautiful, too poised and, well, just too famous to convince as anything other than a force of nature. So he’s perfectly cast here: a wise maniac whose fortune cookie pronouncements carry the weight of holy writ.

Assisted by excellent turns from James Gandolfini (off-the-leash sidekick) and Richard Jenkins (harried older mobster), Pitt helps Dominik deliver a properly exciting drama that – even without those nods towards the 2008 meltdown – convey sobering truths about the American experience.

Dominik’s decision to make those political allusions overt demonstrates a surprising lack of confidence in his own abilities. Subtexts are best left as subtexts.

A superior piece of work for all that.