Day 170: Killing Them Softly

"They're not happy." "Well I'm sorry to hear that, we aim to please."

One of the ten best films of the last decade was 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film was gorgeous & elegiac all at the same time, and had me instantly on board for anything director Andrew Dominik did in the future. His latest film has him re-teaming with that film's star Brad Pitt for the crime drama Killing Them Softly based on the book "Cogan's Trade," and apart from a healthy obsession with masculinity & violence, the film's couldn't be more dissimilar.

Two low-level thugs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) & Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are given a seemingly fool proof opportunity by Johnny Squirrel (Vincent Curatola, best known as Johnny Sack from The Sopranos) to knock over a high stakes underground card game. The game is being run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, wonderfully low key) who has a sad history of robbing his own card games, making him the perfect fall guy for these would-be criminals.

When the mobsters that got ripped off want vengeance, they call in Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to dole out justice. Cogan runs into a bit of a conundrum though when he realizes that he knows Squirrel, and therefore refuses to kill him himself. He asks the mobsters, represented by Richard Jenkins in a nameless role, to call in an old partner of Cogan's named Mickey (James Gandolfini) to make the hit. Problems arise when Mickey proves to be unreliable, and Cogan's plan seems like it's going to unravel.

If you didn't know that Jesse James & this film were directed by the same man, you'd never be able to guess it. Where the former film was methodically paced and elegantly shot, this film is brisk, gritty & dirty. That's not to say that it's an ugly film, quite the contrary, it's just a brilliant study in contrast. The violence that pervades both films is much more brutal here, but it's used just as sparingly. The film that most immediately jumped to mind when comparing this film to a recent release is last year's brilliant Drive, but where that film saved up all its violence for the third act, here it's spread throughout, yet no less graphic.

The film is very much akin to the crime films of the early to mid-70s, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Charlie Varrick, or Get Carter, full of wonderful character actors & long takes. The film's structure is unique in that it is sparingly edited. It's revelatory in many ways, since virtually every scene plays out beginning to end before cutting another scene. The inter-cutting and cross-cutting that has taken hold in the post-MTV era is nowhere to be found here, and it's a breath of fresh air.

The film also owes a huge debt to the films of John Cassavettes, in particular The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It's a much breezier affair than any of Cassavettes' films (clocking in at just over 90 minutes) but it feels like a kindred spirit to his films that focused on the seamy underbelly of life. There are very few characters worth rooting for in this film, yet you manage to find yourself sympathizing with multiple character at various times. In other words, it's a totally unique film to come out in 2012.

The performances are as good as can be expected from actors of this caliber. Pitt is the perfect actor for a role like this, making his character both stoic, funny, and somehow a decent guy in spite of his profession. Gandolfini & Liotta are two actors who have made their name playing heavies, and seeing them as broken down shells of the characters that made them famous is great. They both do solid work in just a handful of scenes. McNairy & Mendelsohn are also very good at playing the lowest of low lives, while also infusing their characters with tremendous empathy.

The script written by Dominik is spare and full of snappy dialogue, managing to make every line count. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is also outstanding, providing a wonderful contrast to the beautifully classic cinematography by Roger Deakins on Jesse James.

The only other thing worth mentioning as a potential roadblock for some audience members is the absolute dearth of female characters in the film. As far as I could tell there was only one female character with any dialogue, and that was a hooker (Linara Washington) who has a very brief scene with Pitt & Gandolfini. Anyone looking for strong female characters is not likely to find them here, but if that and the violence are not an obstacle to your enjoyment of the film, you'll find lots of other stuff here to enjoy.

The film is a meditation on masculinity and framing it in the context of the run up to the 2008 election will ground it firmly in that time frame, particularly in the years to come. Setting the film at a time when the country was falling apart and looking for hope & change gives the film an even more cynical edge to it, grounding the film in a time and place when everything and nothing seemed possible all at once. Killing Them Softly is one of the finest films of the year, and will likely stand the test of time as one of the great crime dramas of the decade.

GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]