For those familiar with director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt’s last collaboration, 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly may surprise. Whilst the former revels in the beauty of its location, the latter ratchets up the violence, so much so that any beauty present is mixed with sheer brutality. The film begins by following Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two small-time crooks who attempt to capitalise on an opportunity to rob a high-stakes poker game headed by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). In the aftermath of the heist, which comprises the film’s prolonged first act, a hit-man is hired by the anonymous gambling corporation’s to find and kill the culprits.
That duty falls to Jackie Cogan (Pitt), whose entrance marks a shift in the visual feel of the film. The opening half-hour appears very subdued, with little colour appearing on-screen (but lookout for the hilarious use of Marigold gloves). However, after the lengthy introduction , scenes combining classical shots with a stylistic flair show the director getting into his stride.
Dominik’s vision is clearly present in Cogan’s first on-screen ‘hit’, a scene filmed sumptuously from many angles and in slow-motion, showing the rain, the blood and the bullets in vivid and gruesome detail. The most striking visuals always revolve around Cogan, begging the question: why was he not introduced sooner? Pitt gives a tremendous performance, as he has done so often over the course of the last dozen years. On the whole, Pitt carries the entire film as the ruthless Cogan, who remarks at one point, “I like to kill them softly.” This is clearly a lie, as nothing on-screen happens softly; even the opening is a disorienting mix of noise and ambiguous visuals that are designed to throw the audience off kilter, a feeling which is never quite dissipates.
The problem is that Killing Them Softly seems to be confused about what genre of film it actually is. The first part bears all the hallmarks of a standard crime movie; yet when Cogan enters the fray (to the soundtrack of Johnny Cash) the entire story appears to have a crisper sense of direction. However, it is hard to escape the social and political undertones of the film.
It is difficult to ignore the Presidential addresses and Senate debates that appear on television or radio sets as these are shoehorned into the action. The speeches that are audible refer to the financial troubles of recent times, so perhaps this is why Dominik gives them such prominence. Killing Them Softly may be subtly hinting that the world’s fiscal policy is driving more people to the type of crime that brings Frankie and Russell into contact with the likes of Cogan, whose remarks do provide the film’s social satire: “America’s not a country, it’s a business. Now fucking pay me.”
Killing Them Softly is generically hybrid. The political themes of the movie are sure to appeal to those who are interested in real-world issues. For those who are drawn towards crime thrillers (though Dominik maintains it is a comedy), the film is a must-see – that is, if you can wait long enough for Cogan’s introduction. Those interested neither in crime nor politics might still be enthralled by Cogan’s ruthlessness and Pitt’s immaculate peformance, which should at least garner an Oscar nomination. However, the film is violent and at times crude. The faint hearted should be prepared; after all “its murder, and they’re squeamish.