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Zimbio Review - 'Killing Them Softly' Examines The Bloody Side of America

(The Weinstein Co.)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Pitt rules, first of all, and director Dominik's lens savors every scene and shot. It's stylistically compelling and much deeper than its simple plot.
 With the empty promises of our politicians chattering incessantly in the background, Andrew Dominik's Killing Me Softly flows languidly like the seep from an open wound. Kiwi writer/director Dominik takes the guts of George V. Higgins' 1974 mob novel Cogan's Trade and places the action in 2008. On the surface, the film may seem like an exercise in stylized film violence, but it's about something more ambitious. America was forged by corruption, greed, and, most of all, the blood of the people, and those primal roots still exist today.

Set in dark and stormy New Orleans, the film hums with violence. A loser (Scoot McNairy) and a junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a mob-protected poker game and send the local affiliate into crisis, mirroring what's happening on Wall St. To clean up the mess, Jackie (Brad Pitt) is brought in. He outsources one of the hits, but his guy (James Gandolfini) is too drunk to come through. Jackie unleashes hell himself, setting out on a mission of murder.

Killing Them Softly's remedial plot is supercharged with some seriously cool filmmaking by Dominik and crew. The poker game stickup is high intensity as the two fools wade in way over their head. Dominik paces the scene expertly; you can taste the suspense. He introduces us to Jackie, making love to a cigarette, as he drives along to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," a song that would make Elmer Fudd look badass. And, the film's signature moment: Jackie pulling up alongside a mark and unloading round after round in extreme slow motion. The camera has time to show every detail of the act: the hammer striking the firing pin; the shell casing popping; and the bullets tearing through glass as the rain ceaselessly falls. This is how you sensationalize violence.

Pitt gets the Brando role here, but his Jackie is no hero. The movie has none of those. In fact, it deals in lowlifes of many kinds, and all of them are cast perfectly. There's Aussie actor Mendelsohn as Russell the junkie, greasy and disgusting. The Animal Kingdom actor is well on his way to having a serious character actor's career in the States. He's got the same live wire intensity as Sam Rockwell, or Gary Oldman before them. There's Gandolfini, who captures the wormy confidence and weariness of veteran hit man Mickey. And, finally, McNairy brings a sad innocence to his role as the second lead, the cursed Frankie, whom Jackie toys with.

Pitt is typically solid as Jackie, the intelligent and polite, but ruthless mobster who's seemingly done and seen it all. He's given the best lines of the film: "Very few people know me." And, "In America, you're on your own." Losing the New England underworld vernacular of the novel, Dominik's made Jackie a downright pragmatist. Pitt effortlessly conveys his exhaustion at his colleagues' unprofessional walk and talk and explains his credo, to kill his targets slowly, so he doesn't have to deal with any emotions. He's an old pro, and nobody brings that cocksure attitude and look like Pitt.

The late Higgins, whose novel inspired Boston's first real crime film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, may not have approved of Dominik's savvy adaptation of his novel. Gone is much of the 70's slang, but the film keeps the spirit of the book's mob language intact. Guys are "friends," and they set out to "do the thing." The film also keeps the book's many car settings and, although it's less overt, Cadillacs and GTOs act as extensions of their drivers' personalities. As in the book, cars are often the most unsafe place to be.

The film has some weaknesses, most notably its silly title (not sure what was wrong with Cogan's Trade), but it remains an artistic and eye-opening look at modern crime's place in history. Near the end, Jackie tells his go-between "America's not a country, it's a business. Now fucking pay me!" After bad-mouthing Thomas Jefferson and denouncing politicians' canned speeches as lies, Jackie's not buying the image of America our leaders want to portray. It's this dynamic that makes the film much more than a standard mob flick. In Jackie's story, we find the real America, and it's ugly and blood-stained.

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