Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

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Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins
Director: Andrew Dominik
Country: USA
Genre: Crime | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Killing Them Softly opens in North American theatres on November 30th.

What is it about Richard Jenkins that makes him so convincing a suit? The distinctive crags of his bespectacled face notwithstanding, he is a performer who sinks so well into white-collar roles, embodying so perfectly with his quiet sense of fatigue the consuming dispassion of commercialism. He could be the best thing in Killing Them Softly, a film packed with aging men dulled to the world, whittled down by its harshness. Here he is a nonspecific suit tasked with hiring cool assassin Jackie Cogan, played with suitably breezy airs by Brad Pitt, previously lauded for his work with director Andrew Dominik in 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. James Gandolfini is more pathetic yet as an out-of-town hitman to whom Cogan outsources, fellow Sopranos alumnus Vincent Curatola chief of the three targets they must see to for the robbery of Ray Liotta’s backroom card game.

Shot mostly in the recesses of night and the dankest, gloomiest of interiors, it’s a film that feels inherently unclean, no less dark in its visual composure as in its thematic. Dominik favours shallow focus, his leads going about their illicit enterprise as the wider world—just barely discernible—crumbles around them.

The black shadows of Dominik’s aesthetic richly complement the manifest darkness of his source material—a 1974 George V. Higgins novel, updated to the modern day. Shot mostly in the recesses of night and the dankest, gloomiest of interiors, it’s a film that feels inherently unclean, no less dark in its visual composure as in its thematic. Dominik favours shallow focus, his leads going about their illicit enterprise as the wider world—just barely discernible—crumbles around them. A slew of wowing long shots attest Dominik’s fluid virtuosity with the camera; briskly twisting through tight back alleys and around sharp corners, he adds tenfold to the tension abundant already in this story. Rarely is enough credit awarded sound departments, whose work so often constitutes the subtle ligaments that hold together the entire atmosphere of every moment. Here sound is paramount, the disturbing eruptions of gunfire and disquieting thuds of fist on face offering a sickening immersion in this dark world that never fails to highlight its horrors.

These horrors, such that Dominik presents them, are many, the world of contract assassination hardly one of the cheeriest substance. Yet even so the film finds comedy in every corner, its jet-black sense of humour bringing an amusing insight to leaven the darkened drudgery constantly at work. The interactions of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as Curatola’s character’s underlings have the classic tough of buddy comedy so often found in the gangster genre, their contrastingly grounded conversations offering much to laugh at between bouts of staggering violence. It’s the success of Dominik’s tonal balancing act that facilitates his wider triumphs, the film’s keen dichotomy between dark dramatics and comic gags allowing a gradual exposure of economic concerns. The business of killing is, after all, just another business, and in the ludicrous hierarchies and protocols of this imagined crime ring Dominik finds much to mock in the machinations of capitalism.

Killing Them Softly is not so much a political film as it is politics filmed, its writer/director’s philosophies ensuring his camera lingers for moments at a time on the now-ironic speeches of Bush and Obama, his soundtrack flooded with the omnipresent background noise of radio hosts espousing the decrepit state of the nation. Dominik has all the subtlety of a luminescent freight train in drawing his political parallels…

To call the film politicised is as to call its leading man cute: a vast simplification that masks the true depth of the matter. Killing Them Softly is not so much a political film as it is politics filmed, its writer/director’s philosophies ensuring his camera lingers for moments at a time on the now-ironic speeches of Bush and Obama, his soundtrack flooded with the omnipresent background noise of radio hosts espousing the decrepit state of the nation. Dominik has all the subtlety of a luminescent freight train in drawing his political parallels, yet the urgency of his message almost demands so laboured and heavy-handed a telling, the on-the-nose approach of his discourse ensuring the communication of a comment he evidently feels important.

Dominik will win no prizes for subtlety, but then nor does he seem intent on such. The sheer weariness of his cast—Gandolfini really is terrific—and the strictly deglamourised world they occupy fuse with the brutal story of caustic indifference to form a social critique angry and abrasive beyond its comic foreshadowing. Much as Dominik’s cynicism herein finds disappointing equal in his underestimation of his audience’s intellect, it’s undeniably nice to have what might otherwise have been a standard—if entirely entertaining—thriller infused with a depth of meaning ferociously relevant to the cultural context under which it was produced.

[notification type=”star”]74/100 ~ GOOD. Killing Them Softly forms a social critique angry and abrasive beyond its comic foreshadowing. It’s undeniably nice to have what might otherwise have been a standard thriller infused with a depth of meaning ferociously relevant to the cultural context under which it was produced.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • One of my most anticipated films of the year. They still should of keep the original title of Cogan’s Trade.

  • baronronan

    Saw it with four people, the one thought we all shared was that Killing Them Softly is a rubbish title! Cogan’s Trade just reminds me of Coogan’s Bluff though, and as we all know reminding me of Clint Eastwood will just make you look instantly inferior…

  • This was a good film which could have been a great one… What a let down