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Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt shines in this gritty crime thriller with an incredible ensemble cast.
By Tom Glasson
October 09, 2012
By Tom Glasson
October 09, 2012

Killing Them Softly is the third movie by Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, and as with his two previous films (Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), it focuses almost entirely on the criminal underworld and those who inhabit it.

Set in 2008, it follows hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he's hired by the mob to track down and execute a trio of small-time hoods for sticking up one of their illegal card games (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, and Vincent Curatola). Pitt absolutely excels as the shrewd, no-nonsense killer dutifully dispatching the mob's condemned subject to two important caveats: he won't kill people he knows, and he won't kill people up close. Not because it's ethically troubling or offensive to his sense of honour, but because it's awkward and a humiliating seeing old acquaintances beg and cry before they die.

Cogan's preference is instead to "kill them softly", at least until he grabs the shotgun, and under Dominik's direction the violence (of which there's quite a bit) combines the graphic brutality of Casino with the stylised cinematography of Drive. It's at once horrific and mesmerising, most notably during a supremely slow-motion assassination between two cars stopped at some traffic lights.

The story is largely based on Cogan's Trade, a 1974 novel by author and former assistant US attorney George V Higgins. Higgins was perhaps best known for his use of hyper-realistic dialogue, lending his stories a theatrical quality that Dominik was wise to preserve. His screenplay crackles with fantastic exchanges and wonderful one-liners ranging from the droll observations of the mob's lawyer (Richard Jenkins) to the menace of Pitt's casually veiled threats.

It's a fantastic and accomplished offering, with the only heavy hand coming by way of the film's laboured political overtones. Killing Them Softly opens on the boarded storefronts and destitution of an unnamed but neglected city set against billboards from the 2008 presidential campaign and excerpts of Obama's convention speech extolling the virtues of America's promise. Later, we hear President Bush justifying the bank bailout over shots of those disenfranchised and indigent who would ultimately foot the bill. America's promise has failed, we're told again and again — empty words and empty undertakings in a world where corporatisation has transformed the country for the worse.

Calvin Coolidge once remarked that the chief business of the American people was business. Crap, says Cogan. America is the business, and the American people are just trying to get one up on everybody else. It's do or be done — and if you’re doing, make sure you're damned well paid for it.

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