Andrew Dominik was always facing a difficult task in having to follow up The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. A haunting adaptation of the murder of one of America’s most infamous outlaws that equally serves as a mediation on celebrity culture, it’s not only one of the finest films of the last decade but one of the finest in cinematic history. The director, therefore, makes a stellar choice in doing something completely dissimilar this time around, tackling the gangster genre with Killing Them Softly.
However, while the genre is alarmingly different, Dominick retains his ability to turn what could have been a conventional genre piece into an unexpected and thought-proving work of cinematic art. With his third film in twelve years, he transforms George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade into an angry, cynical and altogether timely story that accurately reflects recession era America.
We open with two poverty-stricken criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelson) who are hired to rob a mob-protected poker game for Johnny Amato. It sounds like a dangerous feat, but the man running the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), once robbed it himself, pocketing the money and later bragging about it. As he’s already looked upon with skepticism by the gang’s elite, he will likely be their first suspect if the game gets hit again. Even if he’s not, well, they’ll kill Markie anyway just to send a message: you don’t mess with the mob.
Their plan is foolproof and it’s executed without a hitch, but it’s not long before ruthless assassin Jackie Cogan (another excellent turn by Brad Pitt) is hired by the mob to find those responsible and execute a swift, violent retribution. As the blackly clad anti-hero investigates the robbery and who was behind it, he soon learns that the criminal underworld are having to tighten their belts just like everybody else. Those at the lowest of the chain are forced to get by on very little while hit-men like Cogan have to accept a reduced fee in this tough economic climate.
Consequently, Andrew Dominik doesn’t recreate the glamorous aesthetics we’re accustomed to seeing in gangster movies like Goodfellas or TV shows like Boardwalk Empire. The story instead takes place against uncompromisingly grim and impoverish conditions where roads are scattered with potholes and houses are crumbling apart. He even keeps the colour palette drab and stylized violence to a minimum to reflect the suffering Jackie Cogan’s industry is facing.
But Killing Them Softly is far from just a crime drama simply set against a backdrop of financial turmoil. The entire story, in fact, serves as a metaphor for the entire 2008 financial crisis with radio and TV broadcasts from Bush, McCain and Obama reflecting the action we see on screen. In the same way U.S. taxpayers were forced to bail out the banks for the sake of prestige, for instance, innocent Markie has to be killed to restore confidence in the mob’s racket. Meanwhile, the gang elite appears to symbolically represent the American government and their inability to make a firm decision during this worrying time.
Andrew Dominik’s film ultimately mirrors the disconnect between the American people and its government, the promises of hope, unity and prosperity still unfulfilled. It’s not a right-wing film nor left-wing film, but one that reflects a world where those in charge drag their heels while the real people are left to suffer. “In America, you’re on your own,” Cogan coldly asserts at one point in Killing Them Softly and it’s a line that not only sums up the story, but sums up the feelings of an entire nation who feel betrayed. The fact it was filmed in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans is, therefore, disturbingly appropriate.
It’s an undeniably cynical take on the state of the nation but it’s snarled with a fury that no other recession drama has even dared attempt before, and that fact alone escalates Killing Them Softly makes this violent, gritty neo-noir one of the finest cinematic achievements of 2012.