It’s a question that has probed the western world for nearly two decades, can Brad Pitt get any cooler? True to form in his latest performance as Jackie Cogan, a street-smart freelance enforcer, in Andrew Dominik’s new crime thriller Killing Them Softly, Pitt has once again raised the bar. This is Pitt and Dominik’s second collaboration, after 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, following this powerhouse partnership in the examination of the post-civil war outlaw, this latest offering has had a hard act to follow. Yet in this thriller, set in the political crossroads that was 2008 America, Andrew Dominik has offered another of his signature style pieces, showing an engaging focus on the human elements of a story, and has capably equalled Jesse James in an entirely different manner.
Killing Them Softly tells the story of a heist gone wrong: two witless ex-cons take down a backroom poker game run by a small time crook (Ray Liotta), intending to frame the game organiser for the robbery. However, unbeknownst to the low-life employees the poker game is under the protection of the mob. The mob hires mediocre lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who subsequently hires the street smart enforcer (Brad Pitt) to resolve this problem and what follows is a stream of confidently framed conversations in bars and cars as the characters attempt to clean up the hashed robbery. Dominik manages to depict the progress of the story with eye-catching cinematography and vast sparkling dialogue winding colourfully through every aspect of the character’s lives, relationships and work, which when delivered by a who’s who of the cream of American actors takes on a life of its own. This string of conversations is occasionally interrupted with brief periods of extreme and unrelenting violence, which is equally gripping and provides some truly jaw dropping visuals, in particular look out for the final mind blowing murder sequence.
What Dominik manages to convey strongly is the underlying environment of political uncertainty; the scenes are woven together with audio excerpts from the likes of Bush and Obama which aptly underline the fractured hope that surrounded America in the opening stages of the economic crisis. When mixed with the gritty visuals that frame the story, the words blared out by the enigmatic politicians come across as even more hollow. The cast, as previously stated is a stunning combination of contemporary American talent, reminiscent of the cast of the 1992 adaptation of Glengarry Glenross. Ray Liotta is his reliable best in a role that shows his range, as he refreshingly fills the shoes of a somewhat gentle, more timid character than we have previously been used to; while James Gandolfini provides an alternate look at the hired assassin, replacing the mysterious and often assumed hard man image with a depressed alcoholic wreck of a man. However, the show is rightfully stolen by Pitt whose entrance alone, sauntering away from a muscle car as Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ plays over the radio, leaves the audience astounded by the unfiltered display of coolness.
It’s easy to see why Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik work so well together, not only are they both masters of their craft, but in many ways they complement one another’s styles – Dominik portrays intimately human elements in his film to convey the story, whilst Pitt flourishes in the smaller moments on screen just as well as he performs during big moments, if not better. When supported by such a watertight cast, Killing Them Softly is a satisfying blend of classic crime thriller plot, political undertones and scintillating dialogue.