Glenn Dunks- FOR
Killing Them Softly is one of the best films of the year. It bristles with palpable energy as it dissects its targets with such focused precision and skill. You wouldn’t guess it from appearances, but Andrew Dominik’s third feature in twelve years is an adaptation of a 1974 novel by George V Higgins named Cogan’s Trade. Swapping the book’s take on 1970s savagery for a modern day look at America through the eyes of criminals, Dominik’s film, which he also wrote the screenplay for, is an exhilarating experience that had me giddy. Playing like the anti-Drive (the Nicolas Winding Refn-directed crime thriller that I labelled the best film of 2011) as if set within the same miserable world as another Brad Pitt-starrer, Se7en, Killing Them Softly will surely raise the ire of many viewers expecting a kick-ass Brad Pitt heist movie. What it is, instead, is a lean, mean take on the modern world as seen through the eyes of those who live outside the law, but must face the realities of the world they inhabit.
Stylishly filmed by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star), the film is gritty, but never in an impenetrable, suffocating way. There are scenes that genuine flash, whilst others revel in taking a back seat to the fast-paced tête á têtes that dot the proceedings. Special mention must definitely go to the sound team whose finely tuned work makes this cold world really come alive. With gun shots that sound like real gun shots (at one stage I actually jumped it was so loud) and a particularly smart end credits sequence that implies that this is little more than the ending of one story in this city, but that there are many more just like it. Impeccably acted, well-known names Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and Ben Mendelsohn all give strong performances, but it’s Scoot McNairy (a favourite of mine since Monster and In Search of a Midnight Kiss) that steals the film. His nervous, fidgety performance feels so unique and lived in from the very opening scene.
Where the film will stumble for many is with its representation of current American politics. Set during the 2008 USA presidential election, Dominik quite clearly has things to say and they may be crystal clear to some viewers, but ambiguous to others. I admired the way there was always something going on whether it’s visual or on the soundtrack. I got a kick out of its habit of going down unexpected paths that don’t necessarily lead anywhere. I loved that it barely flirts with a 90-minute runtime, and yet still packs a punch (given the amount of punches the characters here swing, that’s an apt way of describing things) that reverberates and certainly left me contemplating its many angles long after it ended.
This is a vital piece of modern filmmaking that officially stamps Andrew Dominik as an important figure. Killing Them Softly is bold and daring with a thrilling twist on the masculine crime world.
JOSH FORWARD- AGAINST
“I like to kill them softly”, explains Jackie Cogan, a seasoned killer played by a glamourless Brad Pitt, who doesn’t like to make killing emotional, messy or loud. It would be nice if writer/director Andrew Dominik showed the same kind of restraint, but instead presents his film Killing Them Softly with little cohesion, few dramatic pulls and a message presented less subtly than a bullet though the brain. A shame considering Pitt and Dominik’s previous collaboration, The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a poetic masterpiece. There are flashes of this previous brilliance that only make the flaws in this film stand out all the more brightly.
The opening credits are stylistically distinct, with the credits loudly and noisily intruding over a speech by a pre-presidential Barack Obama. So from the get go the message is pretty clear. But the style however is not. With an almost Kubrickian opening credit sequence, it then cuts to a very realistically shot, written and acted scene. This flip flopping of styles goes throughout the entire film, with steady cam, extreme slow-mo, shaky cam, and old school music interludes all getting an inclusion. It’s like Dominik went for gritty, but found it hard to give up the poetic flourishes that served him so well in his previous film.
It will take an audience a while to realise that Cogan is the lead, taking a while to even appear. The sooner people realise this, the sooner people may actually become invested in what’s going on, because no character, not even Cogan, is likable and worse yet, there’s no character we care what happens to them. The only exception may be James Galdolfini as hit man Mickey, who is so slimy and piggish that you’ll pray for a slow painful death for him. The most compelling characters are Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), whose heist of a high level illegal poker game sets the films action in motion, but the script doesn’t let them spread their characters’ wings enough.
The heist which sparks Cogan’s killing spree to appease the mobsters, is masterfully done. For what is a disappointing film, the heist scene may actually be one of the most well-crafted scenes of the year as a standalone. The tension is unbearable without using any cinematic clichés or music. There are some other moments of the film too that make Dominik a filmmaker worth keeping an eye out for in the future, but this film just doesn’t quite come together.
Killing Them Softly is released in Australia on October 11th
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Galdolfini, Ray Liotta