It’s been five years since writer/director Andrew Dominik made The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. And like that film, his newest offering, Killing Them Softly, features outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and a fantastic supporting cast, is an allegory for the times we live in, and will likely be seen by no one.
It’s also one of the best films of the year.
Killing Them Softly centers on a pair of small-time crooks who, in their own desperation and outright stupidity, knock over a mafia card game. Unsurprisingly, the mob isn’t OK with being robbed, so they reach out to Pitt’s character, Jackie Cogan. Cogan is an enforcer who specializes in unsavory situations like this, so he sets out to find the thieves and set things right.
Aside from a couple of minor plot developments, the story is fairly straightforward. Dominik instead focuses on his characters and the movie’s timeframe. Killing Them Softly takes place amid the financial crisis of 2008. The film begins and ends with speeches from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and throughout, excerpts from the many, many Presidential and Federal Reserve speeches are heard on TV and radio. It’s not exactly a subtle juxtaposition, but it’s a highly effective one, especially when the thieves, played Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are committing the crime that serves as the primary source of action.
The mafia being used as an allegory for the corporate world or even a small business is nothing new. That same theme was one of the many overarching plots for David Chase’s The Sopranos and a central theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Here, Dominik uses it to darkly humorless ends. Cogan is surrounded by ineptitude and bureaucracy. His primary contact is a nameless lawyer, played by the best character actor alive today, Richard Jenkins. Their conversations, which take place inside various cars throughout the movie are often equal parts comedic and grim. As are the discussions between McNairy and Mendelsohn’s characters before and after the heist.
Visually, the film features the same is as dark and gritty as the world it inhabits. Director of photography Greig Fraser finds ways to make many of the idle conversations remain interesting, though with the performances and dialog so tight, that probably wasn’t too daunting of a task. The film is more showy than Dominik’s previous work, especially in a couple of scenes, one a mob hit that takes place in the rain and the other, a tripped out, heroin-fueled conversation.
The bottom line to Killing The Softly is that it is a simple story told well in every regard. The performances from Pitt, Jenkins, McNairy, Mendelsohn and the heretofore unmentioned James Gandolfini are all rock solid. The political overtones, particularly at the film’s conclusion, are overt, but definitely get the message across. And there are elements of said message that could be latched onto by both the Left and the Right.
If the film has an moral it’s this: If you’re going to steal, steal big. Because small time crooks get dealt with, while the wolves of Wall Street got bailouts.