KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) runs one of the Mob's many secret and lucrative poker games - a potential honeypot for crooks tempted to cash in on the piles of ready cash on the tables. When two young, opportunistic petty crims, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are talked into robbing Markie's game at gunpoint by local lowlife Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), the Mob sends in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), one of its hitmen, to find and punish those responsible. A mysterious driver (Richard Jenkins) is Jackie's go-between for the Mob bosses, who think more and more like corporate managers, much to Jackie's ire. Since he knows Amato, he's reluctant to make the hit himself and suggests they call in the heavy Mickey (James Gandolfini) from New York - at a slightly higher price. Mickey turns up - but Jackie is unimpressed and has to take all matters into his own hands.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Little wonder that Killing Them Softly was invited to the Official Competition at Cannes (2012); here is a movie about crooks and the Mob which presents itself as a hard hitting crime drama, yet it quickly evolves into something of an art movie with dark comedic undercurrents. Andrew Dominik (of Chopper fame) discovered the author's work after seeing The Friends of Eddy Doyle on TV, based on a George V. Higgins book. He eventually found Killing Them Softly and was seduced by the 'great characters, great dialogue and very simple plot'.
Higgins, it turns out, had been a prosecuting attorney in Boston for 20 years; he knew his milieu. But Dominik knows his milieu, too - the movies. He saw the story of the Mob's activities as a parable or metaphor for the wider business of America. As Jackie Cogan says, America is not a country, it's a business. That's the thinking behind resetting the story into the 2008 Presidential election and the crumbling of the global economy. The story is a microcosm of the macro world.
The film is indeed a business story, where the business operates at its most brutal, selfish level; it takes what it wants, and kills anyone who stands in its way. In this world, the Alpha Males rule; but Cogan is a more complex hitman than the standard caricatures. He doesn't like all the touchy feely emotional outpourings of intended victims so he kills them softly - from a distance, if at all possible.
Brad Pitt relishes this role, in which he is like a charming cobra or a delightful conman. He'll kill you, but without malice. He wears his hair slicked back and he smokes. He speaks softly but he drives a hard bargain.
The two younger crims, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), are fabulous. Mendelsohn is written as an Australian and he steals every scene he's in, even those where he's stoned out of his head. McNairy is especially effective when he is faced with the consequences of his actions over a beer in a seedy bar.
Richard Jenkins has the toughest role; it's the least showy, the least active. He sits behind the wheel of his car for a series of secretive meeting with Cogan, while they discuss their business - their Mob bosses the targets of their regular complaints.
James Gandolfini is great value as the slob of a hitman who drinks to excess and punches the air with expletives. Ray Liotta is outstanding as Markie, the smart aleck who gets himself into serious trouble by letting his mouth off.
Given these characters, Dominik immerses us in their world, not perfunctorily as an ordinary crime movie might, but giving each of them screen time - more than you'd expect - to allow us time to observe and understand. This, and Dominik's cinematic flourishes, like extreme slo-mo for a shooting - add texture and depth to the film, elevating it into the highest reaches of its genre.
But the most daring element of Dominik's film is (mis)his use of songs; he even dares to anger the gods of cinema by using an excerpt from Windmills of Your Mind (Petula Clark version), a song irrevocably welded to our memory of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 original version). It's Only a Paper Moon (sung by Cliff Edwards) over a particularly violent scene, likewise Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries (orchestral version). Dominik is clearly a lover of irony.
Review by Louise Keller:
It is through delectable vignettes between different characters that the exposition of this sardonic crime story unfolds. Andrew Dominik's deft touch brings candour to the examination of the mob's processes, deflating any notion of sophistication or glamour to the business of organised crime. While Dominik's Chopper (2000) offered action in the form of overt violence, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) brought deliberation; Killing Them Softly juxtaposes a wry humour as human foibles are bared before the business of slaughter begins. It all starts with relationships. Based on George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade, the state of economy forms the backdrop over which the action takes place - in the lead up to the 2008 US Presidential elections.
It can get touchy-feely, says Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan, the slick-haired enforcer hired to sort out the order of things when the Mob-protected card game becomes exposed. He is sitting in a car, talking to Richard Jenkins' Driver, the go-between, who shakes his head in surprise when asked if he has ever killed anyone. That is when Jackie explains: he prefers to keep his distance when killing his prey, so as not to be close enough to have feelings. Pitt has great presence as the ultra smooth assassin who has an answer for everything and makes it clear he is not paid 'to wait around'. These are wonderful scenes, when potential solutions to unsavoury matters are spoken about indifferently - as if it might have been a conversation about the accounts.
Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly cast as Russell, the slow-witted smack addict who steals dogs for profit and becomes involved by chance. Scott McNairy in a top performance plays Frankie, who recruits Russell, after being put up to the job of holding up the card-game by small-time crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola).
The fact that it is Markie Trattman's game (Ray Liotta is terrific in such roles) and that Markie was responsible for holding up his own game in the past, contributes to how this robbery plays out. The scenes between Pitt and James Gandolfini as the hard-drinking, womanising Mickey are especially powerful, whether sitting in a bar or a hotel suite with a hooker. So too are those between Pitt and McNairy, when Frankie knows his number is up.
It takes a little while to get used to the rhythms that Dominik implements for the narrative, and although there is plenty of 'talking', the film does not shirk from the 'killing', which is depicted in graphic slo-mo and effectively highlighted by the use of shock-tactic contrasting songs such as It's Only A Paper Moon and Love Letters. If you are looking for high octane action with bullets flying endlessly, you may be disappointed. This is a stylish film in which words have every bit as much impact as the bullets.
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KILLING THEM SOFTLY (MA15+)
CAST: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Trevor Long, Max Casella, Sam Shepard, Slaine
PRODUCER: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Paula May Schwartz, Steve Schwartz
DIRECTOR: Andrew Dominik
SCRIPT: Andrew Dominik (novel by George V. Higgins)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Greig Fraser
EDITOR: Brian A. Kates, John Paul Horstman (co-editor)
MUSIC: Marc Streitenfeld (piano & ambiances)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Patricia Norris (sets)
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hoyts
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 11, 2012
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.