It’s 2008 and repercussions of the economic recession are beginning to be felt – even by small-time hood Frankie (McNairy) and his junkie accomplice Russell (Mendelsohn). Recruited to rob a high-stakes card game ran by the mob, the plan is for them to steal the money and have local gangster Markie Trattman (Liotta) take the fall, but things don’t quite work out that way. Hired by a middle-man (Jenkins), professional enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is brought in to clean up the mess…
Previously, Brad Pitt and Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik collaborated on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, a mesmerising yet long-winded (and long-titled) neo-Western which generally wowed critics while leaving audiences cold. In their second collaboration, the general reaction is likely to be reasonably similar, as Killing Them Softly belongs more in arthouse cinemas than it does the multiplexes it’s being aimed at. Far from the action-packed thriller that the trailers have misleadingly suggested, it’s actually a talky, meandering crime drama which is punctuated by irregular bursts of stylish violence and the odd vomit-soaked beating.
But yet, while Joe Mainstream will probably get bored quickly, critical bods aren’t likely to label it a classic in the same way they did with The Assassination Of The Longest Title Ever. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dialogue-heavy approach to gangsterism, mind you, as it worked wonders in The Sopranos. But like The Assassination, Killing Them Softly feels more drawn-out than it does measured, while the stagey, Pulp Fiction-lite dialogue isn’t nearly as sharp or memorable as it needs to be. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ ’74 bestseller Cogan’s Trade (which would’ve been a much cooler title), it’s undoubtedly smart, accomplished and well-crafted, but the end result is frustratingly lifeless, unrewarding and unsatisfying. In short, it’s more impressive than it is involving.
Admirably, Dominik does try to supply subtext, though, using the narrative to add an underlying commentary on 2008’s economic downturn. While some will complain that every tele in New Orleans is constantly tuned in to Barack Obama’s Presidential race, the notion that every part of society – even the mob – gets affected by the financial recession is an interesting one to play with. Still, the best thing about the movie is the performances, with Brad Pitt expectedly strong in the lead while gangster legends Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini are excellent in support (even though the latter is annoyingly underused). Elsewhere, Scoot McNairy gets his first big, post-Monsters part, and Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn is a stand-out as the unpredictable junkie.
Far from the action-packed thriller that the trailers have misleadingly suggested, Killing Them Softly is a talky, meandering crime drama which is punctuated by irregular bursts of stylish violence. But while smart and elevated by a strong cast, it’s ultimately more impressive than it is involving.