New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik raised eyebrows and garnered attention when he delivered the epic tragedy The Asassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which garnered Oscar nominations for cinematographer Roger Deakins and co-star Casey Affleck. Now he’s back up to bat for another shot at Oscar gold with camera guru Deakins, and the star of the Jesse James film Brad Pitt. The film is a mob tale of crime and redemption called Killing Them Softly, which sounds like an oxymoron from the get-go. Although Brad Pitt has long been a performer whose name is more synonymous with “movie star,” he has been edging along in upgrading his credentials to “actor.” Beginning with his work for Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds, and continuing through the aforementioned Jesse James film, and last year’s Moneyball, Pitt has seemed to be moving out of the “movie star” shadow by delivering some really risky performances where they might not be expected.
In Killing Them Softly, Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse. His performance is subtle, yet an obvious psychopath who is in his element eliminating the bad guys’ bad guys. In fact, the film has the same feel as one of the classic seventies’ films like Serpico or The French Connection with a major dash of The Sopranos thrown in for added spice.
To assist in this effort, the supporting cast is just dead on terrific… you should pardon the expression. The star of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini, is around as an aging hit man at the end of his career. Ray Liotta, so memorable in Goodfellas, plays a similar role here, as another shady mobster. And Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins is Pitt’s contact to his jobs, much like Hal Holbrook played the role of “Deep Throat” to Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward in All the President's Men.
Continuing the seventies references in Killing Them Softly, the screenplay is based on a 1974 novel called Cogan's Trade, by novelist George V. Higgins. The only other film adaptation of his work is the well-regarded 1973 film The Friends of Eddie Coyle that offered terrific star turns for Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle.
So keep in mind when buying your ticket that Killing Them Softly is also reminiscent of seventies films in the pacing, heavy dialogue, and grim and grungy milieu in which it’s set. At times, it’s a bit heavy-handed, but always character driven and without the glitz and glamour of other mob-based films. To the point than many folks have complained about the way that it is too solemn and even slowly paced. But in the movie biz, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially if you’re a fan of the crime drama genre.
Killing Them Softly won’t move lickety-split like an episode of series television, or thrill you with bravura action sequences. And if you’re put off by violence and language, it may offend you. But Killing Them Softly is a well-made, engaging tale of mob honor and camaraderie that turns on, and succeeds by, a so-far career best performance by Brad Pitt. Now that Pitt is moving away from “movie star” designation and into the realm of “actor,” I’m eager to see what he does next.
The R-rated Killing Them Softly is now showing at most local plexes.