IN HIS previous films Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Australian director Andrew Dominik explored the crossover between criminality and celebrity; in his latest he modifies that link slightly to examine more closely the parallels between criminality and capitalism, relegating celebrity to the background white noise of an American presidential race in which personality eclipses meaningful action.
Killing Them Softly (18)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Scoot Mcnairy, Ben Mendelsohn
* * * *
That presidential race is 2008’s showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain at the very moment the economic crisis hits. With political rhetoric suddenly filled with talk from outgoing president George W Bush of bailouts, economic stimuli and the need to boost consumer confidence, the harsh, ruthless realities of an unregulated system on the brink of collapse are neatly essayed in the film by homing in on both the chaotic world of self-interested mid-level mobsters feeling the pinch and the desperate restorative action taken by higher-ups to restore some semblance of order.
Dominik dramatises this in the first instance with the robbery of a poker game run by a wiseguy called Markie (Ray Liotta). The takedown has been set-up by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), another mobster who knows Markie has robbed his own card game before. Seeing an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to pull off a job that will see the finger of blame pointed at the person he’s targeting, he hires newly released ex-cons Frankie and Russell (played by Monsters star Scoot McNairy and Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) to do the job.
Dominik sets this up in a way that seems almost perversely convoluted, but also allows him time to develop his characters properly. This is especially beneficial with Frankie and Russell, who may conform to the standard friend/liability dynamic beloved of all mob films since Mean Streets, but do also feel like fully fleshed-out characters, with McNairy’s Frankie suitably weaselly as a man with more aspirations than smarts and Mendelson’s Russell compulsively watchable as a greasy junkie whose frazzled brain is clearly going to result in them being found out. That they’re such obvious screw-ups also plays into the film’s themes: in a recession-hit criminal underworld, professionalism comes at a cost and haggling over-the-bottom-line results in unqualified people doing the job.
This aspect comes increasingly the fore with the arrival of a mob fixer (played by Richard Jenkins). Brought in to make things right, he calls on the services of an enforcer called Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a man who takes his job seriously but is growing frustrated at the increasingly twisted rationale behind every decision that his profit-obsessed paymasters are making. This is a world in which the top-level guys are never seen, have no direct dealings with their contractors and certainly aren’t interested in hearing their concerns about a job or the money they want for completing it. Indeed, Cogan’s bosses keep their distance from him in much the same way that he likes to keep his distance from his targets, preferring to “kill them softly” from afar so as not to let the human dimension – the pleading, the tears, the desperation – interfere with his ability to get the job done.
All of which is Dominik’s way of further linking this world with the world run by faceless corporations that caused the economic collapse. Equating moral bankruptcy with actual bankruptcy may not sound subtle, or even new (The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface and countless others have trod a similar path), but it is persuasively handled in Killing Me Softly and, more importantly, feels credibly contemporary.
Pitt’s character is key to this. More of an ensemble player than a lead character – something reflected in the change of title from George V Higgins’ 1974 source novel Cogan’s Trade – he’s a subtle subversion of the lone gunslinger traditionally found in these types of movies. Though he exudes a cool, collected authority, there’s an underlying impotence, particularly in his dealings with Jenkins’ mob fixer, which are characterised by long discussions that go nowhere and result in him dutifully sending out a message to the criminal underworld by punishing someone he knows isn’t guilty of the crime he’s accused of committing.
Cogan also makes mistakes of his own, chief among them his hiring of a fellow assassin (played by James Gandolfini, magnificent as a leery, past-it mob soldier with echoes of Tony Soprano) to help him take out the real perpetrators of the robbery. Such character-driven moments may slow the film down, but they do help it transcend some of the more questionable stylistic choices Dominik makes (one scene in particular featuring a character shooting up to the strains of The Velvet Underground’s Heroin is the sort of thing that should be outlawed in movies) as well as giving weight to the film’s magnificent final line, which Pitt delivers with breathtaking mix of bitterness and ruthlessness.
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