Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

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By: Aaron Webb

On the surface, it’s a genre piece about an enforcer called in to clean up the mess after two hapless crooks think it clever to knock over a mafia-run card game. At a deeper level, it’s an allegory for the true nature of the US economy and it’s relationship to US political leadership. Still deeper, it provides advice for maintaining good mental health in the amoral jungle we call life.

Killing Them Softly is a film that speaks to the audience in some ways subtly, in some ways like a sledgehammer to the teeth. I’ll save some of you some time now; if you’re expecting a glamourised romp through the underworld, with a massive faceless-henchman-bodycount, gun-porn, tits, explosions, and “Royale-with-cheese” dialogue, don’t bother going to see this film – you’ll hate it.

For the rest of you, you’re in for a real treat. Plot-wise, it’s quite straightforward – everything the viewer expects to happen happens. However, in not over-complicating it, director Andrew Dominik provides a stable platform from which to hurl his bleak assessment of America into the faces of the audience and in doing so, extracts some of the most incredible performance from the talented cast in recent memory. It’s also a very funny film, as long as you like your humour black.

Brad Pitt shines as Jackie Cogan. He plays the hitman in a smouldering, understated way. He’s a man with a job to do and he wants it done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Most of what he communicates to the audience comes not through dialogue, but through facial expressions and body language. You can read what he’s thinking as he deals with the professional ineptitude that surrounds him.

James Gandolfini as “New York Mickey” delivers incredible performances in his two scenes with Jackie. Brought in as a sub-contractor to take out one of the targets (Jackie Cogan won’t kill someone he knows. The targets immediately understand why he’s there and in subsequently sacrificing their dignity, make the whole experience uncomfortable for both parties). All he does is drink suicidally and alternatively lament the loss of his ex-wife – quickly marking himself as a liability. The weary sorrow in his face is palpable as he speaks about his lost love, both for losing her and for his knowing that he is patently unable to win her back, as he’s a slave to liquor and the criminal lifestyle he leads.

Ray Liotta gives a solid performance as the doomed Markie Trattman, but the real coup here is in casting him for the role. In doing so, Dominik saves himself having to expand significantly on Markie’s back-story, as the audience already knows what sort of guy Markie is – a tired Henry Hill stuck in mafia middle-management. As the fall-guy for the robbery, he cops one of the most savage beatings I can remember in film history. I felt quite ill as the beating progresses. The sound design through this scene really drives the point home; no kung-fu smack noises here, but crunches and tears that you feel in the pit of your stomach. You know his body’s being severely damaged. Interestingly, the violence of the actual killings is far less of a body blow to the audience than this beating and one of them is really quite beautiful.

Scoot McNairy is good as Frankie, evoking real concern from the audience as his character slides from cocky to terrified. Richard Jenkins’ Driver is excellent in his bland, banal representation of upper mafia management. Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell is an absolute delight to watch. The gap between Russell’s perception of reality and the actual situation he’s in is huge. He blindly carries on with entrepreneurial arrogance, hilarious vulgarity and destructive gluttony – and we love him for it!

The theme of ‘the reality gap’, the difference between perception and reality (as coined by Ben Elton) is hammered home to US audiences by the juxtaposition of lofty campaign speeches from Obama and Bush/McCain about the ideals of the America being set against the reality of what’s actually happening down at street level. Everyone’s out for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world. The parallel between the not-very-well protected card game and the subsequent financial devastation it’s robbery causes. The poorly regulated US banking system and the global fallout following Goldman Sachs’ “robbery” of it are starkly underlined. The difference between these two scenarios though, is the entrance of Jackie Cogan to come in and brutally clean up the mess – perhaps the director is offering the US government some hard advice?

At the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Dominik gave us another angle from which to view the film. He cites Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who famously compared the Marx brothers to the three aspects of the personality according to Freud: the Id, Ego, and Superego.

Combine the layers of subtext with beautiful cinematography from another Aussie, Grieg Fraser, some tricky technical direction (Trattman murder, heroin scene), a wonderful soundtrack, some very guilty laughs and superb performance from the cast, and what results is a film that is immensely polarising and will be discussed for years. You can smell the ‘cult’ status on it already. Like a partially cut and polished gem – some of it’s slick, and some of it’s really raw – and that’s exactly the point.


Killing Them Softly is in wide national release currently.

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