Under a rather misleading marketing campaign, Killing Them Softly arrives on UK screens after positive buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Andrew Dominik’s previous two films; 2000’s Chopper and 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, have shown his growing prowess as both a writer and director. Here, Dominik continues to take advantage of his formidable cast in sophisticated and slick thriller that offers plenty in the way of personality and vehemence.
The film follows hired gun Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he is called to “rectify” a heist on Markie Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) mob run poker joint by Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). With nothing particularly unique about the story, Killing Them Softly focuses heavily on its performances and dialogue to convey the depth and temperament of the plot. In the same vein as the likes of Animal Kingdom or No Country for Old Men, the film thrives on its slow-pacing and sudden moments of intensity and ferocity. While many might become impatient with the dialogue-heavy approach, Dominik’s tight script is a rewarding one that subtly and meticulously develops each element of its story and characters. However Dominik’s rather forced attempts at adding “morality” comprising of his own interpretations of the “American Dream”being one rooted in the individual not cooperation, while makes sense, is far too regularly plastered on screen. Whether it be radio or TV recordings of McCain’s or Obama’s campaign, Dominik tries too hard to get this message across even when the script perfectly handles it.
Where Killing Them Softly particularly prevails is in its collection of top-notch performances. Brad Pitt’s recent form has seen him nominated amongst various critic circles and societies for his roles in Moneyball and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and here he delivers another sterling one that incorporates both the suave exterior of the character with the systematic yet humane logic. James Gandolfini’s washed up, paroled ex-mobster Mickey doesn’t strive far from his usual “colourful” roles. But there’s an unsettling and sinisterness to his portrayal of a broken man drinking the bar, and licking his lips while discussing his sexual fantasies. It’s a memorable performance that certainly makes an impression during his relatively inconsequential screen-time. Scoot McNairy (Monsters) offers a sympathetic angle to a young man struggling to find purpose, and proficiently portrays his collapse into anxiety and fear with Pitt on his tail. Meanwhile Ben Mendelsohn continues his phenomenal form (Animal Kingdom and The Dark Knight Rises) capturing the unfazed tone and grotty nature of his character, whilst also adding a slither of dark humour. As for Ray Liotta, he does well in his rather minor role which sees him brutally beaten up.
Visually, cinematographer Greig Fraser and Editor Brian Kates do a great job in creating a slick film with a dark and gritty atmosphere. Being set in New Orleans, the film remains restraint in its use of establishing shots, but still manages to incorporate a strong contrast between the drab and bitter streets, and the modern hotels and classy restaurants. Along with excellent lighting and skilful camerawork Killing Them Softly is a really nice and rich looking film. The use of slow-motion has become a cliche of cinematography, but here its used reservedly and to a beautiful effect. In one particular shootout, it’s implemented to a stunning degree with raindrops bouncing off car bonnets and the kinetic movement of the mechanisms of firearms. On the other hand, the two could be accused of slightly attempting too many stylistic choices with a drug-induced Mendelsohn drifting in an out of consciousness undertaken by a series of jarring transitions to black that quickly gets restless. In regards to the film’s sound design, Killing Them Softly is a relatively subdued with the moments of violence and brutality punctuating through the normality.
Overall Killing Them Softly is a slow and intense exhibition of the crime thriller genre done well. While its no action-orientated or black comedy as trailers have seemingly highlighted, there’s a certain intensity and forceful personality that comes through the smart script and excellent performances. Definitely worth a watch.