Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Killing Them Softly

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 14th October 2012

First thing to note: there’s a killer line-up.

Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini are comfortably cast as gangsters, dragging behind them the baggage of their greatest cinematic and televisual creations. Australian Ben Mendelsohn (star of the brilliant Animal Kingdom) gets to keep his antipodean accent as a similarly unhinged and sinister crook on the make; little-known Scoot McNairy is the kid-with-a-squeaky-voice who has more guts than we realise; and the wonderfully doleful Richard Jenkins is the “suit” who manages these criminals’ shenanigans, reporting to the corporate bosses and ruling everyone’s budgets.

And of course, there’s Brad. But while some may be tempted to brand this “the new Brad Pitt movie”, on those grounds I caution: Viewer Beware. As in his previous collaboration with director Andrew Dominik, here Pitt is understated and captivating. When he explains how he doesn’t like all the emotion wrapped up in killing someone at close range, you know he’s still ready to put a bullet wherever he’s paid to. The film’s R16 certificate is well earned for its visceral, blood-drenched violence, the brutal language and its bleak view of the criminal underworld.

It’s a story we know well: baddies knocking about with baddies, double-crossing one another, maintaining loyalties to a point, getting the job done and causing plenty of bloodshed in the doing.

Dominik has adapted the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade and transposed it several decades to the eve of Barack Obama’s election as president.

The film juxtaposes the global financial crisis in America with the business of conducting criminal activity, taking recourse against thieves, and (in the movie’s slightly lighter moments) how even assassins have to take a pay cut in these difficult fiscal times.

To prove his point that the economy parallels the mercenary approach of criminal organisations, Dominik underscores several scenes with TVs and radios blaring footage from the presidential debates of the period. It’s not subtle, but the argument is valid.

The film is beautifully framed and shot, consistent with Dominik’s second film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in which Pitt played the legendary outlaw). The complex characters are well portrayed by their weighty actors – Gandolfini’s killer spends most of the time drunk and whining about women; Pitt doesn’t want to get touchy-feely about the operation of his job – and there are delightful moments in the albeit longwinded script in which bad-asses riff about things perceived to be outside the realm of usual bad-ass concerns.

This said, it’s easy to beat up on Dominik’s crime drama, packed as it is with criminal stereotypes. It’s more derivative than it is original, evoking Scorsese and Tarantino, using slo-mo photography of bullets shattering a man’s body and the drug-addled haze of a hapless wannabe.

Yet, purely because it acquits itself so well, this one deserves to be untied from the chair and let free.

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