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Cannes 2012: Killing Them Softly

Posted on Wednesday May 23, 2012, 15:18 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Cannes 2012: Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, like Lawless, is an American film that used to have a much cooler title – in this case, Cogan's Trade, after the novel by George V Higgins. For some reason it was received much more warmly than John Hillcoat's film, for reasons that are still eluding me. I think it's a good movie but not a great one, and what surprised me was not just how heavy-handed the film was in places but how very subtle and deft it was in others.

Let's start with what's good, and that has to be the cast and the acting. Brad Pitt takes a while to turn up, so the first 25 minutes or so belong to wannabe gangster Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The pair are recruited to hold up a card game being run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the deal being that, on account of Markie having held up his own card game in the past, everyone will assume it's Markie's boys again this time. Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a Mr Fixit brought in to find out what happened, on behalf of a shady cartel run with almost businesslike respectability by Jackie's driver (Richard Jenkins).

These actors are all very good. Which is just as well, since this is a very stagey, Mamet-like script which requires a lot of talent. Some of it goes on a little too long, more in an American Buffalo style than Pulp Fiction, and most of it concerns character, since there isn't a whole lot of plot happening. But, irritatingly, the film seems to stop in its tracks to accommodate the dialogue, which is why most of the film's outstanding moments are visual, such as the initial, gripping robbery. Dominik really shows a lot of flair here, with a realistic gangster tale that aims for a much greyer palette than the baroque Assassination Of Jesse James (think Jackie Brown, or Spike Lee's Clockers). The violence is especially well handled too: as in Lawless, much blood is spilt, especially by Jackie.

The downside is that the film is a little on the nose, which is putting it mildly. Throughout the entire film there is the drone of TV news reports, showing one president or another (it takes place during the transition from Bush to Obama) and constantly referring to the 2008 financial crisis. If this wasn't enough, the music cues are some of the most obvious ever: Jackie arrives in town to a needle-drop of Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around and, even more predictably, Russell takes heroin to the strains of the Velvet Underground's Heroin. Even a key murder scene has shades of Guy Ritchie about it, and while it is expertly done, it doesn't sit too well with the rest of it.

Still, it's a decent underworld thriller, refreshingly grubby and blue collar, with lots of darkly comic performances, such James Gandolfini's New York Mickey, a boozy hitman who drinks and fucks his days away while breaking conditions for his parole after being arrested with illegal firearms. Mickey drives Jackie to distraction, and this is really what I took away from the movie. Killing Them Softly purports to be an allegory for credit-crunch America, but in reality it works much better as an allegory for the country's depressed industries. As Jackie soon finds, the old, reliable workers are a dying breed. Or to put it another way, you just can't get the staff any more.

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