New Zealand-born filmmaker Andrew Dominik garnered some serious praise with his second feature The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, a film for which such a grande title was wholly apt. His debut work, Chopper was a slighter affair, both in terms of focus, running time and title, yet bore much of the same in the way of thematics: both films deal with the cause of celebrity, albeit from a left-field perspective, and explore notions of what it means to be idolised and exist on a separate plane of existence to the average bear. While Killing Them Softly (from the George V. Higgins novel, ‘Cogan’s Trade’) follows suit with the latter, and portrays a figure on the edge of the world, it eschews the former, with our protagonist not worshipped so much as hidden, his role in the world being to prowl the fringes and only get involved with any given situation when, to use a particularly gross expression, the shit hits the fan.
The anti-celebrity feel is echoed, strangely enough, in the casting of Brad Pitt as the movie’s figure-head. It’s thirty minutes before Pitt’s Jackie Cogan makes an appearance, and even then it’s not until the films third act that he actually takes prominence. He is but a presence, an proto-anonymous figure overseeing the events that we bear witness to. That Johnny Cash and the sight of rain accompanies his introduction, an introduction which focusses solely upon the feet reinforces the mystique, with no wit lost in the casting of the World’s Biggest Film Star as an innominate figure. Cogan, like the novel that provided the inspiration for the film feels like a figure from the past uprooted and re-placed in the now. While Higgins’ book was firmly ground in the Nixon era, so does too the Pitt character feel, himself a kindred spirit of Axel Freed, or the sort of character Gene Hackman played for Arthur Penn and Francis Ford Coppola.
While Pitt sits out the films opening act, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy feature most prominently, with their doomed protagonists making for the perfect example of Dominik’s finely balanced sense of tone. Sequences filled with biting humour are but the slightest of cuts away from the darkest of moments, with the manner in which Dominik jumps from the two protagonists debauched tales to one of the tensest heist sequences in recent memory being a key reminder of such. Dominik frames tightly, grooming an intensity that borders on the unbearable. As with his earlier works, short and unexpected bursts of violence litter the picture, leading to an unnerve tone, while a drawn out, slow-motion set-piece assassination cut to Kelly Lester’s rendition of ‘Love Letters’ plays out like a symphony.
Like his telling of the life of Jesse James before it, Killing Them Softly is very much “An American Tale”, albeit with the more recent film being one ground very much in the now. Presidential declarations bookend the work, while the voices of the Wall Street bailout can be heard in practically every sequence, their omnipresence garnered thanks to the radios and television screens that fill America. Never has the term “The American Dream” being so appropriate to it’s definition. Some might argue that The American “Illusion” is far more worthy a tag all term for the jingoistic promises offered up by politicians and television, with the subversiveness of Killing Me Softly playing with the very foundations of what dreams actually are. Hallucinations and second-hand-stories form large parts of the films script, while the cynical heart of the movie deals with the very idea of a society being encouraged to believe in a of renewed opportunity, when in fact the renewal was never necessary, given the idea that someone, somewhere, is usually taking the opportunity to make a stand for themselves at the expense of others.