Adapted from George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Andrew Dominik brings the American gangster crime-noir to the cinematic screen as Killing Them Softly.
Breezing in on the tail-end of Drive, Killing Them Softly is obviously influenced not only by Winding Refn, but also Scorcese and Tarantino. The film interlinks various characters that are all in some way involved in a local poker-game heist and, in the broader macrocosm, in the corrupt and financially unstable America of 2008.
As Adam Woodward rightly points out, it is a portrait of a nation in which “dirty hands wash dirty hands and where there are simply no good guys left” (Little White Lies). The focal violence is certainly the result of all the men washing their hands in the same dirty water. The violence soars from brutal, down-and-dirty, old fashioned beatings to an artfully constructed slow-motion night shooting at red traffic lights. The soundtrack offsets the visual with perfect poise producing articulate art. The shame is that at its bare bones, the plot isn’t articulate art at all: the unsubtly of the American speeches and the clamorous violence are sacrificial in what would otherwise have been a beautifully crafted cinematic beast.
This, at least, by no means deadens the acting. Scoot McNairy gives a gifted performance as Frankie; it’s Steve Buscemi’s character, except that’s not Steve Buscemi. The dialogue which jostles between Frankie and homeless tramp Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) showcases Dominik’s talent for capturing detail and idiosyncrasies in his screenwriting. There are also notable performances from James Gandolfini and his mouthy strong-willed prostitute. Sadly for Brad Pitt it seems he has been rolled into that stereotype character whose primary role is to drive the plot: Jackie Cogan’s slick, smooth-talking, sangfroid, leather jacket clad gunman is all too reminiscent of others who have gone before him.
Killing Them Softly, despite its faults, may perhaps be part of the new dawning that Hollywood films can experiment even within the boundaries of their genre, and that in the current climate, they have to.
Killing Them Softly, dir. Andrew Dominik (USA, 2012)