The golden age for American hard-boiled noir fiction came in the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, with the era of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M Cain. Their hard-bitten tales of crime and desperation were borne out of the dismal socio-economic conditions in America that resulted from the Great Depression.
In the 70s, George V Higgins kept the hard-boiled genre alive well after the post-war economic boom, with his acclaimed debut novel The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which was adapted into a similarly acclaimed film starring Robert Mitchum that stripped away the glamour of the gumshoes and added the nihilistic atmosphere and grim realism prevalent in American studio films of the period.
It’s in this context that the origin of Killing Them Softly begins to make sense – an adaptation of a Higgins novel (Cogan’s Trade) made by Andrew Dominik, a filmmaker who demonstrated in The Assassination Of Jesse James a keen grasp of the pessimistic aesthetic of 70s movies, that’s set against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the one that originally led to the creation of modern hardboiled fiction.
It’s the logical next step for all the things that have combined to create the best crime fiction, and the results are suitably spectacular. However, for those not willing to do a little bit of work, Killing Them Softly might ultimately be an unsatisfying experience, as it’s a film that asks a great deal more of you than your average gangster shoot-‘em-up.
Certainly, there’s a danger that those people going in for the stylish crime caper advertised by the trailers will be disappointed. Which isn’t to say that Killing Them Softly fails as a thriller, or that it lacks some intense moments of action – the heist sequence that sets the plot in motion is genuinely nerve-wracking, and there is a slo-motion bit of gunplay that is a showstopper. However, the film is long – as talky as the Higgins books that inspired it – has little regard for traditional dramatic payoff and resolution, with a number of key events happening off-screen. It’s also absolutely dedicated to continuously hammering home its central conceit: crime on the streets of America is analogous to the crime being perpetrated in the higher echelons of society by bankers and public officials.
Set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, a dim low-level gangster (The Sopranos’ Vincent Curatola) teams up with two even dimmer hoods in Frankie (Scoot McNairy, Monsters) and Russell (a brilliantly repulsive performance from Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn), to knock-off a mob card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta), someone who had previously been discovered robbing his own game. The three wager that the ‘street’ will assume Markie is responsible again, thus letting them off the hook for the crime – however, they don’t reckon on the involvement of enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who an unnamed mafia middleman (Richard Jenkins) tasks with seeking reparations for the stolen money, taking the lives of whoever is necessary in the process.
It’s not exaggerating to say that the social commentary in Killing Them Softly is the film’s primary concern – this is not a film interested in relegating that particular aspect of the story into the subtext, like in most noir stories. There are several occasions where characters in the film literally stop what they’re doing to listen or watch Obama or McCain discuss the government’s bank bailout plan. While it’s not unrealistic – America at that time would have had saturated media coverage of the plans for the economy – it still feels slightly jarring and undeniably heavy-handed, particularly as a lot of the themes are articulated more artfully and subtly elsewhere. There’s also a speech at the end that, while powerful, felt almost Sorkin-esque in the transparency with which the author’s own opinions are displayed in the dialogue of the character.
Ultimately, Killing Them Softly still has to be applauded for its ambition in so boldly politicizing its story, and, as others have pointed out, by anchoring it to this specific point in history it will future-proof the film for generations to come. It just feels like it overplays its hand slightly, particularly because the rest of the film is absolutely stunningly well-made and written: it feels frustratingly close to being one of the very best American crime films, but as it is, it just has to settle for being one of the best films of the year.
Like Jesse James, there’s a strangely elegiac quality to the film, only this time it’s hard to say what these characters are mourning. They certainly are mourning, though – nearly all of this rogues gallery are insecure, beaten-down (often literally), desperate, and left emasculated by their inability to earn an ‘honest’ living. Some of the most interesting scenes involve James Gandolfini’s turn as New York Mickey, a pathetic, alcoholic hitman who Cogan once respected but increasingly begins to regard with disgust.
While Cogan manages to retain some gangster glamour in the the ice-cool dispatching of his targets (he is played by Brad Pitt, after all), he seems repulsed and irritated by his actions and the world he finds himself in, populated by stupid, cowardly and borderline disgusting individuals reminiscent of the undesirables in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe earlier in the year (you feel the two films would make a good ‘recession-noir’ double bill years from now).
The cast is uniformly excellent, but Pitt should get the most plaudits, providing a subtle twist on his usual unflappable onscreen persona to provide one of the most interesting and complex anti-heroes we’ve seen on screen in some time. Here he channels Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum into something uniquely his own, and turns in an understated performance that make Cogan as enigmatic and fascinating to the audience as he is to the mob world that seems in awe of him.
The real star of the film, though, is writer-director Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand born filmmaker who has now made three films (following Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James) that can stand proudly alongside the first three films of any great director you’d care to name. There isn’t a scene that goes by where Dominik doesn’t make an interesting choice, whether it’s an inventive camera placement, or an unusual digression in the dialogue.
The opening scene, which jump cuts disorientingly between the opening titles, a run-down car lot and – yes, a President Obama speech – immediately cues you into to the fact that you are watching something that is working to its own idiosyncratic rhythm. Dominik is unquestionably one of our great directors, and if he continues his relationship with Pitt we could be looking at something comparable to the heyday of Scorsese and De Niro.
Lest you think the film is beginning to sound rather dour, it’s also worth noting that Killing Them Softly is really funny, with Dominik returning to the vein of black humour that he mined so effectively in Chopper: the biting political satire throughout the film is nicely complemented by a good line in profane criminal banter, as well as one memorably great bit of slapstick.
It’s true that Killing Them Softly can be maddening on occasion, but for every clunky moment there are 30 inspired, brilliant ones. The film feels rich with nuance and detail, and burns with a righteous anger in a way that feels increasingly rare in American cinema, let alone in the worn-out gangster genre. It’s another great achievement from an astoundingly talented director and one of our last remaining true movie stars, and is a must-see for any fan of uncompromising, intelligent cinema.
Killing Them Softly is out in UK cinemas today.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.