“America’s not a country, it’s a business.” This grim, final proclamation by Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) defines the overwhelming sentiment of Killing Them Softly. In 97 solid minutes of stylish cinema, the film paints a blood-and-sweat portrait of America as a dog-eat-dog battleground of shrewd criminality and swift, hard justice. Based on “Cogan’s Trade” by underrated crime novelist George V. Higgins, the film’s central fable concerns a plot to knock off a mob-funded poker game and the pursuit of the three lowlifes involved. Beyond the primary story, though, is a parable of American values and policy, punctuated with sound bites of Bush, Obama and Paulson delivering high-flying speeches to the airwaves.
Director Andrew Dominik, an Australian whose previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007) explored similar American themes, pokes at a fresh wound in the national psyche, and his methods are not gentle. Characters expound frequently on the state of the United States at large, using the dingy, treacherous underworld of post-Katrina New Orleans as an anchor to an open condemnation of the corruption and criminality of American lawmakers and the false promises of the telltale American dream.
Its violence is almost as jagged a pill to swallow as the film’s bleak thesis. Dominik constructs his scenes with a coiled spring, threatening the welfare of the characters, each one wretched and sincere in his own way (indeed, females are noticeably and almost entirely absent from the film). When violence does erupt, it does so with magnum force: Dominik’s camera stylizes beatings and shootings in visceral, ferocious, shocking ways. It is rare to see violence exhibited so repulsively and intensely in conventional cinema, and Dominik uses this effect to highlight the terrific realism of his story.
Featuring effective performances across the board, from newcomers like Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn to established actors like Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, both with notable mob movie backgrounds, the acting is ultimately employed as a tool to drive the theme harder into the audience, and like the considerable technical talent involved, it is an example of the craft at its highest quality.
Unlike its controversial, confrontational message, the quality of Killing Them Softly is beyond debate– but both should be admired equally. Dominik has constructed a relentlessly bold piece of cinema in an age where most films have nothing to say.
– Robert S. Hummel