Filmmaker Andrew Dominik is an Australian national treasure. Dominik’s directorial presence infuses an admiration of violence reminiscent of writer/director, Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), the visual and satirical competing philosophies of director, Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove) and the examination of inherently violent men of director, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver). However in the criminal world of Killing Them Softly there’s a political and economic oppression that mirrors pre-GFC U.S.A.
During the recovery of a financial crisis in a New Orleans criminal gambling syndicate some opportunistic small time crooks decide to exploit the same flawed system and frame those who’ve exploited it before. The criminal bureaucracy in charge of the area (mediated by “Driver” [Richard Jenkins]) hires Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to orchestrate the clean-up.
The visuals from director of photography, Grieg Fraser and Dominik are striking. The colour range is gun metal grey and rain soaked, which makes a great contrast to the blood spilt throughout. The intimate affective violence is vivid and yet it’s contrasted with the beautiful Peckinpah ‘appreciation of carnage one millisecond at a time.
Dominik reframes writer, George V Higgins source material (Cogan’s Trade) from the 70s setting to a modern time constructs a criminal bureaucracy represented primarily by (Jenkins); when ‘hits’ aren’t just done they’re endlessly discussed and approved by committee. The dialogue scenes are carefully written to have characters advertise themselves as one thing – only to tear down those facades as the film progresses.
The sound design of Killing Them Softly, like Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam Soldiers chorus of “Mickey Mouse” in Full Metal Jacket, has you aurally swimming with radio recordings and television broadcasts espousing the rhetoric of hope, in this inescapable and futile criminal wrestle.
The performances are sensational. Pitt’s Jackie is your affable sociopath forced into the grind of middle management negotiations of his methods. Pitt’s clearly hogtied by his employer’s agenda and balances that frustration and facade of keeping his distance and his kills ‘soft'; with a frightening appreciation and satisfaction with the kill.
Ray Liotta has now participated in two of the most violent scenes committed to cinema. After beating a man with the butt of a revolver on his front lawn in Goodfellas, Liotta wholeheartedly commits to become the recipient of the most brutal acts of violence on film this year, and possibly, all time. His performance, though brief is memorable and integral.
Ben Mendelsohn is a powerhouse. His character Russell is the release valve for the film. This sweaty, drug addled, capitalist whose “fuck you” presence antagonises his accomplices with hilarious results. Dominik’s directorial perspective is even drawn to Mendelsohn’s Russell, occasionally occupying his subjective viewpoint under the influence and swaying in and out of consciousness.
A subtle flaw of Killing Them Softly is the emphasis of the political message. After the buzz of Presidential race broadcasts that compliment every location and scene, there didn’t need to be a final didactic summation of the message.
Killing Them Softly is visually sublime. The characters collide against each other in powerfully authentic exchanges; political structures echo in criminal establishment; and the violence stings and disgusts, as it should.
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn
Killing Them Softly is released in Australia on the 11th of October 2012