Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan
Scoot McNairy as Frankie
Ben Mendelsohn as Russell
James Gandolfini as Mickey
Vincent Curatola as Johnny Amato
Richard Jenkins as Driver
Ray Liotta as Markie Trattman
Trevor Long as Steve Caprio
Max Casella as Barry Caprio
Sam Shepard as Dillon
Slaine as Kenny
Julio Castillo as Miss Annie
Garret Dillahunt as Eddie Mattie
Directed by Andrew Dominik
It's been five years since Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik's minimalist Western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and for a follow-up, he tackles the criminal underbelly of Boston during a very specific time period during late 2008 just after the economic crash, something made clear by how the voices of Bush and Obama are heard on every radio and television throughout the movie.
Based on George Higgins' 1974 novel "Cogan's Trade," the film opens with two lowlifes, Frankie and Russell (Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn), an ex-convict and a junkie, being commissioned to rob a high stakes poker game where many of the area's top mobsters spend their money--a crime that goes without a hitch but immediately puts a target on the backs of those responsible. Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the well-liked low-level mobster who runs the high stakes poker game is also thought to be involved with the crime, having robbed his own game in the past.
After watching the robbery being set up and taking place, we're nearly 25 minutes before Brad Pitt, also the film's producer, shows up as Jackie Cogan, the assassin brought in to clean up the mess and the movie starts focusing more on his search to find those responsible for the card robbery and taking care of loose ends. He in turn calls in James Gandolfini's Mickey, an out-of-town hitman who can help take care of their problems.
It's a very simple plot about a single crime committed and what's done to get justice and restitution for that action, but Dominik's screenplay and the way he develops the characters through their rich backstories and the casting of strong character actors is what makes it so distinctive. It's a dialogue-driven film that builds tension via a slow build-up that makes the bloody violence later in the film that much more effective.
As straightforward as the story and characters may be, the film uses an interesting narrative as it never stays with any character for far too long, but Dominik's cast is strong enough that it never wavers. Especially entertaining is "Animal Kingdom" star Ben Mendelsohn as the sleazy dog-loving junkie and he tends to be far more credible than his partner-in-crime, played by Scoot McNeary, whose exaggerated accent and high-pitched delivery tends to be distracting.
At first, it feels like Pitt may have miscast himself as the cold-hearted killer, but maybe that's because he tends to be outmatched by stronger character actors like James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins. The more time we spend with Jackie, the more obvious it becomes that he's going for a similar slow build as his director. By the time we get to the final coup de grace scene, we've already seen him kill three others in quite a spectacular fashion.
Gandolfini's character may not seem necessary to the overall story, but he has two of the film's most memorable scenes with Pitt, showing what a presence he can be on screen. Richard Jenkins also holds his own as the corporate handler hired to interact with Jackie, and Ray Liotta is such a no-brainer to play Markie that he tends to be overshadowed by others.
There are far more layers to "Killing Them Softly"--a title taken from one of Pitt's conversations with Jenkins--than the typical gangster thriller, partially since Dominik foregoes any conventional music scoring in favor of the speeches by Obama and Bush trying to comfort the country following the crash as well as vintage tunes often used in an ironic fashion. His artistic filmmaking side is also present in scenes like one of the gangland hits which is done in ultra slow motion with one of those tunes used in an ironic way. It's one of the film's unforgettable moments that makes up for the often laconic pacing.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of vintage Scorsese, Tarantino and Guy Ritchie should appreciate Dominik's stylish character-driven gangster thriller although those with more conventional tastes may find it too talkie or arty for its own good.