For a film of such thematic cohesiveness and narrative momentum, “Killing Them Softly” opens in a totally unsettling, deceiving way — with a bizarre barrage of clashing sonic and visual elements — blank, black title-cards and sharp ambient noise, contrasted with desolate New Orleans landscapes and a booming political speech. It’s a lot to take in. But with this, writer-director Andrew Dominik boldly declares his thesis for “Killing Them Softly” — by contrasting political messages of uplift with the depraved actions of contemporary criminals, Dominik breaks down the differences between society’s highest and lowest ranks. If anything, he finds their parallels through their primary motivation — namely, money.
Money’s behind everything in “Killing Them Softly”. It’s behind the political speeches that seem to blast from everyone’s car (it’s set in the weeks leading up to Obama’s 2008 election), it’s motivating the impressionable idiots who decide it’s a good idea to rob a local mobster’s poker game, and it’s what brings our protagonist to town. Jackie Cogan comes to clean up everyone’s mess and keep the Mafia’s public image in check, which unfortunately means punishing both the kids who ripped off the game, as well as the incompetent (if innocent) guy who administered it in the first place.
The film is something of a loose anthology piece, often lingering for 10 minutes with a group of characters, often within the same scene. Much time is spent with Frankie and Russell, the well-meaning yet drug-addled and unintelligent guys who Cogan has in his sights. Played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn with a sweaty, delirious sheen, these are exceptionally painful people to simply observe. Their fates are doomed from the first frame and we know this, yet watching them try to rationalize and fight their way out is beyond painful. Same goes for Ray Liotta, who takes a break from his generally direct-to-DVD output these days to create a character as developed and distinctly human as his Henry Hill of “Goodfellas” in about a tenth of the run-time. James Gandolfini as a rusty hitman enjoyably riffs off of his “Sopranos” persona, and Richard Jenkins is spot-on as an elusive suited figure who controls Cogan’s trigger, and thus controls just about everyone in the film.
Brad Pitt anchors the work with the steely confidence we’ve come to expect. He manages to balance the dual roles of being one of the world’s last bona-fide, mega-watt movie stars, as well as playing a wary, pragmatic mob affiliate, coming perhaps as close to blunt immorality as we’ve ever seen from him. Seeing his articulate swagger used to the ends of murder and manipulation is a pleasure, and he delivers Dominik’s dialogue with zest and wit. Pitt’s final line, serving also as the film’s, will be remembered and echoed for years. By me, at least.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser lenses the streets of New Orleans as a nightmare in perpetual downcast and downfall. He moves the camera with a patient eye, only cutting away when utterly necessary. One second-act sequence, in which Cogan executes a major character in a drive-by shooting, is played in ultra-slow-motion, to great effect — a haunting mosaic of rain, shattered glass, bullets and blood-spurts. In a film about as nihilistic and dark as any, it’s a moment of bizarre beauty. It’s where the bleak reality and slick aesthetic craft of “Killing Them Softly” meet. Seeing as I greatly admired both on their own merits, in this sequence “Killing Them Softly” approaches pure cinema. A-