Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has teamed up once again with Brad Pitt to present a black comedy State of the Union address.
It tells the story of two deadbeats Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) who stick up a card game, having what they think is the perfect fall guy. Unfortunately things don’t go according to plan and when the people in charge call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to solve the problem, it means someone is going to pay the price – regardless of their perceived security.
The film, which is based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade”, is littered with incredibly brutal violence, most notably in a scene involving Ray Liotta. It is however overly stylised with its use of slow motion and loud sound effects making it jar and almost glorify the violence. With the amount of violence comparisons could be made to last years’ Drive, but in that film there was a dream-like or ethereal feel unlike Killing Them Softly which is rooted firmly in reality. The way in which the violence is carried out leaves you cold and unaffected, neither arising fear or disgust.
This is the main failing of the piece – its clear use of style over substance. The look and feel is incredibly one dimensional and flat, a scene involving an insight into drug-taking is unique in its look, but anyone over the age of 16 would merely find it dated. It relies too heavily on music with each connecting scene being scored with some catchy number by the likes of Johny Cash and while this is acceptable in small amounts, here it feels like we are watching one long music video.
The redemption of the film lies with the performances. The double act of Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as a pair of jittery hoods is excellent and provides much of the film’s humour. McNairy’s emotional outpouring when he realises what he must do to make amends for past mistakes is the only part of the film which stirs our compassion. The side story of Gandolfini as another hit man who is slowly sliding into a full blown breakdown is a worthy addition and with his years of experience as Tony Soprano he carries it off with ease. Liotta as always turns in a great performance and there may be a new entry for the shortest ever cameo by an actor for Sam Shepard.
Along with McNairy and Mendelsohn the other main actor is Brad Pitt playing the hit man Jackie Cogan. Not quite a “man with no name” he is still the stereotypical out of town hit man with the dark clothes, no nonsense business sensibilities and a cold calculating efficiency. The main stumbling block to Pitt’s performance is that it lacks any sort of menace, you never really tense up when he appears on screen or worry as to what he is going to do next as you did with Javier Bardem in the superb No Country for Old Men. Pitt brings into focus the social commentary element of the film. Peppered at pivotal moments are orations by either Bush or Obama on the state of the country. An interesting element at first but by the 50th time the device is used it becomes grating and tiresome, though Richard Jenkins puts in a strong performance as a representation of all the perceived wrong doings or inadequacies of the American corporate business.
Clever in its plot but not in its execution, Killing Them Softly is an interesting exploration into the state of America but leaves you feeling frustrated and expecting more; perhaps like the country itself.
USA / Directed By: Andrew Dominik / Written By: Andrew Dominik / Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn / 97min / Crime, Thriller / Release: 21 September 2012 (Ireland/UK), 30 November 2012 (US/Canada)