In 2007, Australian director Andrew Dominik (who had risen to prominence based on his terrific debut film “Chopper”) and mega-watt star Brad Pitt teamed up for the existential western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” One of the year’s best films (in a year positively stuffed with them, from “No Country for Old Men” to “There Will Be Blood” to “Zodiac”), it was more or less ignored and died a dog’s death at the box office.
Thankfully, Dominik and Pitt didn’t let the inglorious demise of “Jesse James” get to them, and the duo are now returning this weekend with the pitch-black crime saga “Killing Them Softly.” Adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins, the thriller has a dynamite cast that includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, and (briefly) Sam Shepherd, as well as a lean, mean story that is all killer, no filler. Literally.
But will people be more willing to accept “Killing Them Softly” into their hearts? Or is it doomed, destined for “Jesse James”-like obscurity? Let’s find out.
PRO: It’s Really Angry…
One of the more surprising elements of “Killing Them Softly,” especially if you didn’t read anything after the movie’s big premiere at Cannes this past summer, is how politically minded it is. It’s a giant, barbed critique of post-bailout America, with the structure of organized crime standing in for the American financial institution. Also, it takes place right before the 2008 election, and various debates by Obama and McCain form a kind of alternate, underlying soundtrack. (The last scene takes place on the night of the election; it’s sort of amazing.) It’s really bizarre, a little on-the-nose but always super sharp and very much appreciated.
CON: … Not Everyone Is Going To Like It When It’s Angry
Watching “Killing Them Softly” for the first time, I knew that the political angle was going to put off a lot of people. In fact, it will likely be the single most dividing aspect of the movie, which doesn’t exactly wrap you up in a warm blanket of met expectations and genre movie conventions. This is a thorny little film that I happened to love, but some people will be easily turned off by it. And the political stuff, more than anything else, will be the reason.
PRO: The Cast Is Very Good At Being Bad
There isn’t a single character in “Killing Them Softly” who isn’t some kind of thug, goon or lowlife. The whole thing takes place in the depths of the criminal underworld, free of law enforcement figures or any kind of moral certitude, leaving room for its voluminous cast to have a lot of fun playing very bad dudes. Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn portray a pair of dumb-ass criminals who knock over an illegal card game and spend the rest of the movie looking over their shoulders; Mendelsohn is always wet and dirty and McNairy is the closest thing the movie has to a “likable” character since he seems to feel sort of bad about his villainous activity. Richard Jenkins plays a Saul Goodman-style mob lawyer and James Gandolfini, in a performance that blows away his role in David Chase’s upcoming flick “Not Fade Away,” is a hitman with a drinking problem and a history of beating up prostitutes (yes, really). Like “Jesse James,” Dominik’s film richly details the inner lives of very bad men, in a compelling and artful way.
PRO: Brad Pitt Proves He’s The World’s Most Handsome Character Actor
Of course, the star of the show is Pitt, no matter how much screen time he actually occupies. His introduction to the movie is one of the more memorable, non-Javier Bardem intros in film this year, and for the rest of the movie he totally becomes the character. As Cogan, a killer the mob sends to tidy up this knocked-over card game mess, Pitt is mechanical, exacting, subtly evil and exasperated (he wants to get paid and get out). Sporting a streak of dark hair and a bushy goatee, this is not Brad Pitt, one of the world’s most handsome men; this is Brad Pitt, one of the world’s greatest character actors. It’s an occasionally ugly, totally fearless performance, and further proof of Pitt’s boundless enthusiasm for his profession and his utter commitment to character. Hopefully, his role here will not get overlooked.
CON: It’s Too Short
Almost every movie eclipses the two-hour mark these days, so why do we only get 97 minutes of “Killing Them Softly?” True, there isn’t a wasted moment in the whole film, but when you’re watching something this well-acted, directed and edited, you can’t help but want a little more.
PRO: It’s One Of The Best Movies Of The Year
If you’re worried that the movie is too dark, too political, too weird, just put all that aside. Because “Killing Them Softly” is the real deal — it’s an absolute masterpiece, and easily one of the best movies of the year. With its contemporary setting and accessible cast, I think that it could avoid the fate of “The Assassination of Jesse James.” This film is just as good. It’s a new classic — but hopefully one people will actually see.