With its focus on American capitalism played out in the mean streets of Boston, Killing Them Softly establishes itself as a new crime classic that is as thought provoking as it is visually and narratively absorbing.
Gangsters and capitalism as a duo is a regular fixture in crime cinema. The Godfather movies especially brought together the two in perfect harmony, as did the rise to power through cocaine trade escapades of Brian de Palma’s Scarface and work-a-day Mafioso exploits of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
With Killing Them Softly writer/director Andrew Dominick has made a film that ranks with those previously mentioned, similarly themed masterpieces. Yet recent fiscal history adds a weight to Dominik’s commentary on “crime pays” cinema with Killing Them Softly set during the global financial crisis, and if you thought Scarface was brutal with its warring gangsters swimming in ‘80s excess, just wait until you see what happens in the urban jungle when the animals are fighting over scraps.
At the bottom of the food chain are Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) lowlife junkies hired to knock off an illegal card game. With the mobs hard earned stolen, veteran hit-man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in to investigate, locate and dispense of said sad souls.
With his coiffed hair, trimmed goatee and leather clad jacket over silk collared shirt, Pitt brilliantly portrays a methodical killer whose vintage cool exterior veils a constantly ticking mind that is one step ahead of the rat race. Killing is his business and in America there is no greater place for business to take place, recession or no recession.
If Pitt’s Cogan is crime with brains, drive and style, then his targets are the opposite. This is especially felt with McNairy and Mendelsohn’s junkies, so sweaty, dirty and desperate that the need for a shower is intimately felt after spending time with them, despite their incredibly good performances with the pair taking to Dominik’s (as adapted from George V. Higgins’ novel) wise-guy philosophising, urban rhythmic, Scrosese-esque dialogue where profanity is the glue that keeps their points coherent.
Indeed, along with the performances it’s the screenplay that makes Killing Them Softly such an engrossing watch. Dominik has constantly been lauded for his visual style (and rightfully so), yet little credit is given for his knack of writing darkly comic, colourful dialogue as evident both here and in his debut film Chopper.
Throw in the tangible sense of atmosphere as featured in the always constant presence of former President George W. Bush and current President Barrack Obama spouting the values of American enterprise and individuality, only to then show those virtues twisted into ugly acts of ferocious violence motivated by capitalism (mafia style), and Killing Them Softly will leave you with something to chew on after recovering from its dazzling display of filmmaking.