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‘Killing Them Softly’ hits viewers hard

Violent, thought−provoking film keeps audience on its toes

Published: Monday, December 3, 2012

Updated: Monday, December 3, 2012 07:12

“Killing Them Softly” may be a gritty, violent and overwhelmingly angry gangster flick, but it is beautifully poetic all the same and is almost certainly one of this year’s most thought−provoking films.

A neo−noir adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade” (1974), “Killing Them Softly” marks the sophomore collaboration between Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik, following their critically acclaimed “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). In “Killing Them Softly,” Brad Pitt plays a hit man charged with the task of investigating the robbery of a mob−protected poker game. Instead of following Jackie Cogan (Pitt) the entire time, though, Dominik interweaves the robbers’ stories with those of other mobsters, leaving it to the viewer to decide with whom to sympathize with. The robbers, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a young crook recently released from prison and an Australian junkie who sells stolen dogs, respectively, work together in hilarious ways, providing rich, realistic and idiotic dialogue throughout.

In that vein, “Killing Them Softly” strays from the format of the typical gangster film: it’s less about the violence — although there is quite a bit — than it is the dialogue. Reminiscent of the classic “Goodfellas” (1990), whose star Ray Liotta also appears in this film, scenes in “Killing Them Softly” often are long, but still manage to create enormous tension between characters through dialogue.

Furthering this effect, the dialogue is complimented by tremendous acting. Gangster genre veterans Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola — the latter two hailing from “The Sopranos” (1999−2007) — work alongside new faces, with Pitt serving as a buffer between the two. With this interest in dissimilar generations, and the film’s preoccupation with the failing US economy and America’s false sense of national community, “Killing Them Softly” frequently focuses on contrasts and ironies.

What mostly prevents “Killing Them Softly” from being another mindlessly violent gangster movie is its not−so−subtle subtext of American politics. Political dialogue from President Bush and other governmental figures appears throughout the film as background noise, popping up on the radio and on TV. Setting the film during the 2008 elections gives Dominik numerous opportunities to criticize American politics by juxtaposing snippets of the candidates’ platforms and violent scenes of greed.

While most gangster films inject these themes simply by showing violence in America, Dominik leaves no room for doubt, and it sometimes feels a bit forced. This overt reference to American politics was not in the original novel, but was added in by Dominik who, perhaps, felt it was a necessary addition after the 2012 elections. Thankfully, this does not distract from the enjoyable story and great character interactions. Thus, Dominik also makes the film accessible to those viewers who may not have picked up on its critical analysis of modern politics, however blatant this analysis may have been.

That said, the violence in “Killing Them Softly” is grittily realistic, and it is also darn entertaining. The sound effects of punches and crunching bones are unlike anything other films have offered, and it seems as if Dominik has found the best way to audibly convey these actions onscreen.

One scene is particularly entrancing in its violence and beauty. In it, two “muscle−men” interrogate Markie (Liotta) about his involvement with the robbery, giving him a good beating as well. The dynamic camera movement, the light reflecting off the rain to form cords of light suspended in mid−air and the sound of fists hitting a face create something exquisitely horrendous. Furthermore, the cinematography is spot−on throughout the entire film, much like last year’s gangster neo−noir film “Drive” (2011). Both of these stunning films are rich in dialogue and extremely violent when they need to be.

Much like “Drive,” “Killing Them Softly” is also likely to polarize its audience. For some it will be too slow−paced, too violent or too political, but for others it will be realistic, necessarily violent and overall a great cinematic experience.

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