Killing Them Softly, a film set in a nameless urban American wasteland and directed by a Kiwi is a resolutely French piece of noir filmmaking.
Let me explain. Andrew ‘Chopper’ Dominik’s latest movie, which tells of score-settling, amongst small-time mobsters, is a movie about contemporary economic politics every inch as much as it is a story of revenge. The plot follows the aftermath of the audacious yet ill-advised hold-up of a backroom gambling operation. The world is one where everybody, from the rookie crooks and the shady poker players to the Brad Pitt’s ‘sensitive’ hitman – who can’t bear to see his victims suffering so he kills them from a distance, hence the Roberta Flack-referencing of the film’s title – are explicitly caught up treading water amidst burgeoning global financial gloom.
Killing Them Softly is set against the background of the initial waves of the 2008 global economic crisis and the associated financial pledges from aspirant presidents Bush and Obama, both promising to lead the US to financial security. All its characters are at the sharp end of the economic wedge, all of them trying to stay afloat. The candidates’ promises are mediated through distant television reports, highlighting the cynical remove from the sober realities if contemporary American life.
In such a way, Dominik’s film stands up as a dark satire on capitalism’s inability to bring any lasting benefits to the society it dominates. Pitt’s killer, driven exclusively by the market, stands as a contemporary shadow of the heroine of French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel Fatale (1977) where the hired assassin is cast as the distilled product of capitalist spirit. Whilst Killing Them Softly, itself based on a detective novel, George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade (1974) shares Manchette’s critical imperative, the film also shares his bleak pessimism.
Whilst the story is reasonably compelling and the satire interesting from the context of a Hollywood product, the film is most successful at the level of character. The fantastically-named Scoot McNairy brings a Buscemi-esque twitchiness to unsteady criminal Frankie, whilst Ray Liotta provides a pitch perfect cameo as the doomed wiseguy Markie Trattman. Perhaps most impressive, however, is Pitt’s hitman, Cogan. In a restrained, mature performance, Pitt all but buries memories of his over-the-top Inglorious Basterds buffoonery around these parts. Killing Them Softly is an all-too-rare piece of filmmaking – a movie that is concurrently both entertaining and has a relatively palatable message. Shame Pitt went and ruined it all with that fucking horrible Chanel ad, then, innit?