(Originally published in Sify.com, on June 2, 2012)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola
Director: Andrew Dominik
Rating: 4.5 stars
I couldn’t tell why the film got me when a scrawny runt of a wannabe gangster stumbled out, weeping as Obama spouted rhetoric about “our right to make of ourselves what we will”. Maybe it was the music. Maybe it was the expression of utter defeat, utter horror, and utter failure on the face of the character played by Scoot McNairy. But I liked the film right away.
Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade, the film isn’t afraid to dismantle the story. While the book is set in New Orleans, the movie could be anywhere. It discards the character from its title, and we don’t even meet Cogan for a good half-hour. When he does come in, we’ll remember him mainly for his monologue which tells us why the film is called what it is. And if you haven’t caught the trailer, you’ll love how he says it – with a careless edge, as if it were too obvious to explain. Because the best hit-men know that “beatings are unpleasant”. That the way to do it is to cut out the fuss.
Before the best hit-men come into the picture, though, we meet Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy). And we laugh at lines like, “Australians go at eighty cents a dozen, and they throw one in for free”. Then, the really good lines pour in, with the really serious gangsters.
While none of the characters is etched particularly well, it goes with the tone of the film, which brushes aside the plot, as if it can’t be bothered to explain the sort of crappy judgment that makes a man trust hired lowlifes to pull off a stunt that would piss everyone off. It’s the writing that gets us. But that’s only to be expected when director and screenplay writer Andrew Dominik drawls in interviews, “The advice in the movie is...basically telling people to have good mental health.”
Starting when Bush and Obama are running each other down, the film uses election speeches to mark time. It unfolds like a mood piece, the commentary as intense as it is indolent. With stylised violence and a plethora of gore, the film humours fans of the genre, but pushes the boundaries. It toys with the notion of trust – how many times can you play the same trick? How many times will people laugh and let you go? It also examines the idea of nation in the context of economy – what do you say about a country where even a hit has a “recession price” and people speak about murders like they’re discussing stocks? Case in point: “Double’s risky, I’ll take the one.”
The heavy work in the film, which prides itself mostly on how cool it looks and feels, is left to the audience. We must figure out whether the nationality of the man who walks away unharmed is crucial. We must decide what is ironic, and what is true. Norms are turned on their head. But it all comes home to us, thanks to a capable cast. Scoot McNairy shows tremendous promise, and James Gandolfini luxuriates in his role as the past-his-prime hitman. Between his bumbling and his rage, one can hardly believe he became Tony Soprano less than fifteen years ago. And Brad Pitt does what he does so well, with the right sort of direction – he becomes the character, building up to the climactic line.
The Verdict: Crafted by a clever director and a conversant writer, Killing Them Softly is meant for the intelligent fan of gangster cinema.