Killing Them Softly

Posted: September 30, 2012 in Film reviews

Directed by Andrew Dominik. Starring Brad Pitt.

A darkly comic take on the 2008 financial crisis told through the prism of a collection of low life gangsters.

It’s 2008 and as the world financial markets crash, the situation is mirrored in microcosm by a collapse in confidence around mob run card games. Nobody ever robs these games, because although they’re easy pickings, anyone who does is liable to end killed by the mob.

A low life businessman, known as the Squirrel, thinks he has a fool proof way to take down one game, by robbing the card game run by Markie Trattman ( Ray Liotta), because it was robbed once before, by Trattman himself, so the Squirrel figures if its knocked over again, the mob will simply ice Trattman and that’s that… Unfortunately the two low life losers he hires to rob the game (from this point on assume everyone in the film is a low life) are not the sharpest tools in the box, in fact one of them takes stupidity to a whole new level, and whilst the mob don’t discount that Trattman may be behind it all, they bring in Brad Pitt’s enforcer/hired killer Jackie Cogan to make sure.

At first it might seem an odd fit, those on the bottom rungs of society being used as representatives of a collapse at the highest levels of American business, but for the most part it works well, especially when it’s being subtle. The allusions to gambling, to loss of confidence in the system, the need for Trattman to be seen to be punished, even though he’s not guilty of anything except appearing to be guilty.

The mob is shown as a failing corporate entity, an organisation where every decision needs to be discussed by committee, and Cogan’s contact with the mob isn’t some clichéd wise guy, instead it’s Richard Jenkins’ corporate stooge, more lawyer than mobster. Similarly even what Cogan is being paid to kill those involved has to be negotiated, with the recession hitting the mob the same as everyone else.

Where the film works less well is when it’s being obvious. George Bush and Barack Obama discuss the crisis endlessly via every TV or radio, and while it keeps the idea in focus that what we’re seeing is a story about the financial crisis, it stretches belief that bottom feeding criminals really listen/watch financial news all the time.

This isn’t likely to be a film for everyone. For starters it’s brutal, though at times the violence is quite balletic, however I liked this, or rather I appreciated it, it’s nice to see a film that hasn’t been sanitised down to 12A levels. Aside from the violence the pace won’t suit all tastes. The story, such as it is, is wafer thin, and much of the film is taken up with the various characters sitting around sharing war stories, and not all of them seem relevant, although the more you think about it the more James Gandolfini’s washed up mobster can be seen as a metaphor for America, the big shot who’s gone to seed.

Personally I enjoyed this film a lot, Brad Pitt is as good as I’ve seen him in a long time, and whilst I initially worried that this was going to be one of those films where a big star films a few scenes but isn’t really part of the major story, I was pleasantly surprised, and Pitt forms the core of the film, the epitome of the hard working American (yes even as a hired killer) who suddenly finds the recession affects even him.

It takes good writing, direction and acting to make a group of characters, none of whom are pleasant, so eminently watchable, yet this film does it, and I’d have been happy for it to go on longer, that said, that it’s brief is another point in its favour. Too many of those sanitised 12A films are also incredibly bloated.

Despite its violent, dark tone, the film manages to be funny, even though the humour is of the blackest kind, and Brad Pitt’s final scene at the end of the film is absolutely brilliant. Rarely have I seen Hollywood be so brutally honest about what a confidence trick the American Dream actually is. Definitely an unexpected pleasure.

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