Few films in 2012 have been as actively disliked as New Zealander Andrew Dominik's follow-up to the much admired The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Just as that film - also starring Brad Pitt - looked at the classic American western through a whole other viewfinder, so does Killing Them Softly deconstruct the hardboiled thriller, adapting George Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade into a post-Tarantino ensemble piece that posits crime as both trivial and serious, replacing chases and gunfights with wisecracking dialogue. The subversive project works equally well in both films though, for my taste, Killing Them Softly is the better film: leaner, terse, streamlined to the point of a sharp blade, as befits the tale of mob enforcer Jackie (Mr. Pitt) having to sort things out when a mob card game is hijacked by small-timers looking to cash out of the underground.

     Honour among thieves? Certainly you can think that judging from the "you-only-get-one-shot" plotline, but the film's 2008, pre-Obama election setting makes a none-too-subtle pass at something else: crime as a parallel economy, a structure that essentially mirrors what goes on in the business world - the old adage of "Murder, Incorporated" has never been so true, as the constant back-and-forth between Jackie and a nameless Mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) over authorisations, payments and perception makes clear. Mr. Dominik's constant layering of recession elements throughout may be too heavy-handed to sit easily next to the film's flip, glib gallows humour and tough dialogue, expertly modulated by a great ensemble cast. But it also goes some way to explain just why Killing Them Softly has been so disliked: by reducing crime to a job you do for a living, making great use of its industrial suburbs and rundown blue-collar neighborhood locations, it strips away the veneer of power and glamour to reveal it as just another petty-minded arm of a global rat-race economy. Taut, terse, Killing Them Softly may not be a great movie, but it's smarter than most, and a cut above what everyone seems to make of it.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola, Sam Shepard

Director: Andrew Dominik
Screenplay: Mr. Dominik, from the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins
Cinematography: Greig Fraser (colour, processing by Efilm Deluxe, Panavision widescreen)
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Designer and costumes: Patricia Norris
Editor: Brian C. Kates
Producers: Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Anthony Katagas (Plan B Entertainment and Chockstone Pictures in association with The Weinstein Company, Inferno Entertainment, Annapurna Pictures and 1984 Private Defense Contractors)
USA, 2012, 97 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 7 (Lisbon), November 23rd 2012


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