Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

“Killing Them Softly”

Mark Metcalf calls Brad Pitt's new film "a beautiful fusion of traditional movie entertainment pushed right into the real political world we all live in."

By - Nov 30th, 2012 04:00 am
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Killing Them Softly takes place during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Obama vs. McCain. The economy is already tanking. We hear a constant media barrage of messages about how each candidate is going to save the Union. The film insists that we all live in a political world. But Killing Them Softly is a gangster film, not a political thriller.

It’s not a pasta-and-canoli mob film or a silk-tie-and-cashmere-jacket mob film. It’s a George V. Higgins mob film, from Higgins’ book Cogan’s Trade, which means low life, professional crooks who make as many bad choices as good, live just inside the edge of society, and have very little control over their existence, surrendering to one boss or another without too much notion of loyalty, and for whom brutality is not an emotional condition, but one of the exigencies of the job.

If you don’t know George V. Higgins you should treat yourself to a read of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and then take a look at the 1973 movie with Bob Mitchum, directed by Peter Yates, who also directed Bullitt with Steve McQueen. Yates was an Englishman and Andrew Dominik, the director of Killing Them Softly, is from New Zealand. It has been true of American crime writers, dramatists and occasionally rock bands that people from other countries recognize how fine they are well before we do.

Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini in a scene from Killing Them Softly.

Dominik is a very style-conscious director. His first film in the United States was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007. In that film the pretty pictures got in the way of a very nice performance by Casey Affleck as Ford and one of Brad Pitt’s really great self-referential character acting moments as Jesse James — criminal turned celebrity.

This film is more of a piece. The photography is gritty and drained of color. The camera celebrates the actor, not itself, and Dominik has a tremendous assortment of character actors to celebrate, from Pitt again, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta, to two actors at the center of the story who have had journeyman careers up until now, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy. Everyone gives a spot-on performance. Gandolfini has the most fun as a down on his luck hit man who comes in from out of town to take a contract, but drinks and whores his way out of the job and into jail.

Ray Liotta in a still from Killing Them Softly.

Dominik turns the violence into a ballet of slow motion bullets, blood, vomit, fists and glass. Liotta takes a truly vicious beating at one point and later, barely recovered, he is shot while waiting at a stop light in his car. The car rolls into the intersection and is repeatedly hit not by just one but by three other cars moving through the cross street. Both sequences are shot up close in super slow motion with faces distorting under the pressure of fists, glass and skin shredding under the pressure of bullets and steel. He does something wonderful with sound as well. We hear the breaking of ribs and the crunch of jaw bones louder than anything else. The heightened sound pushes it right into our face, makes us endure the brutality in an emotional way unlike any film I remember. At other points, the violence is counter-balanced by a musical score that is almost whimsical.

Scoot McNairy in Killing Them Softly.

As stated earlier, the media barrage of the ’08 campaign is always present. A television is always on in a bar or an apartment; a radio in the background when they are in a car. The action and the characters develop to the accompanying dialogue of sound bites from candidates selling themselves to America, partaking in the unusual sporting event that we have turned elections into.

In the final moment, when Pitt’s character is trying to get paid for taking care of the suit’s business, doing the hits he was hired to do, Obama is on television espousing the shared community of America — our responsibility toward each other. Pitt comments, and I’m paraphrasing here, that what Obama says is bullshit, saying, “America is business; now pay me.” It’s a strong moment, hard and cynical. The fact that it is Brad Pitt — a very outspoken advocate of liberal causes — speaking gives it an irony I think audiences will take with them. It is a beautiful fusion of traditional movie entertainment pushed right into the real political world we all live in.

Killing Them Softly opens Friday Nov. 30 at the Rosebud Cinema.

For more of TCD’s film coverage, and Mark Metcalf’s Moving Pictures reviews, visit our Film Page.

Categories: Movies

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