Cannes 2012: Killing Me Softly Review | Brad Pitt's Bracingly Political, Seriously Good Gangster Flick
Lovers of gangster flicks will have a few moments' pause at the beginning of Killing Them Softly, as a brilliantly stylish opening scene gives the sense that this will not be an ordinary tale of revenge-bent mobsters offing each other. We see paper flying about in a wind-tunnel to a backdrop of a sound of loudly clanking machinery as one of the main characters, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) heads to meet an acolyte from his prison days (Ben Mendelsohn) to see about a heist job they can pull off together for the benefit of 'Squirrel', a lowly criminal who has a plan to rob a mob-protected poker game and frame Markie (Ray Liotta) for it. The job goes well, but it becomes clear that Markie did not do the job, and soon the big bosses, through the interim of a nervy Richard Jenkins, bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort out the mess by beating up and/or killing some or all of those held responsible.
It's a perfectly mundane premise, but one that Dominik exploits in surprising ways. First of all, his sense of character, and the great one-on-one scenes of dialogue he engineers between his main characters, tackle the story from a tangent. Cogan, the hitman, bizarrely acts as kind of moral conscience of the film -- perhaps similar to the way that Omar in "The Wire" has a deeply felt code that he abides by -- and brings out differing elements in the people he interacts with. With Richard Jenkins' go-between, he is kindly in explaining the rules and principles of vendetta, but steely in his commercial dealings; he is protective of James Gandolfini -- here playing a vulnerable, alcoholic fellow hitman; and fatalistically paternal with the naive young Frankie, who he realises is out of his depth in this world. In a fascinating, consummately acted scene at a bar, Cogan makes himself known to Frankie and gives him choices as to his outcome; it is clear from this weighty moment that the notion of choice is central to Dominik's conceit. His argument appears to be that we are all free agents, confronted with a series of moral decisions. That the pursuit of money ends in death for several characters speaks volumes about the dark conclusions he draws from this.
The film also tackles the topic of money and society beautifully. It shows a completely disjointed society, in which the only woman we ever see plays a prostitute and the only person on hand to give you some emotional support is the guy who has been brought in to shoot you in the face. In the background of so many shots -- the film is set during the Obama v McCain election -- are TV screens blaring messages about the downfall in the economy, and about pulling together in this terrible time, etc. The settings are grim and full of desolation; characters are dirty, sad, and resigned to their lot with grim humour. In another sensational scene, Jenkins and Pitt lay out the conditions for the criminals to be killed, involving flying in James Gandolfini at a discount on his usual fee, which is nevertheless too high a price for Jenkins, who says, "OK, but fly coach." In a further scene, Pitt admonishes an accomplice who tries to steal a tip he has left for a waiter. If this makes the film seem ham-fisted, it isn't: this is deftly woven in as a terrific seam in a very able study of men and crime.
The movie is also a great entertainment in itself, managing to create great suspense out of a very basic plot, and earning some massive laughs in a handful of scenes with some beautifully imagined moments. Having been Pitt-agnostic from Meet Joe Black right on through to Inglourious Basterds, I must admit he did a creditable job here, with good timing and gravitas supplementing his usual laconic drawl to create a world-weary criminal who feels convincing. His brilliant chemistry with Richard Jenkins during their discussions makes for some delightful scenes. I also found Scoot McNairy appealing and vulnerable as Frankie, and Gandolfini did a good variant on Tony Soprano as a sad liability with a bravado that fools no-one.
All in all, Killing Them Softly is a film whose rich layers are well buried in an entertaining 90 minutes of stylised gangster stuff. While it does not live up to his Jessie James in terms of its ambition or beauty, it nevertheless shows a director at the top of his game.