Cannes 2012 Review: Andrew Dominik's Brutal 'Killing Them Softly'
by Alex Billington
May 22, 2012
This film can really be summed up in one word: brutal. But there's other words that work just as well: cool, or badass, or violent, or grim, or smart, or criminal. Killing Them Softly, formerly known as Cogan's Trade (the title of George V. Higgins's book it's based on), is the latest from director Andrew Dominik, of Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford previously. This time he gathers up an ensemble lead by Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy to tell a more straightforward crime story. Another typical hit-then-kill (as I call it) kind of story, with too thin of a plot.
Killing Them Softly is a down 'n dirty crime flick, about the people involved in setting up a robbery, the criminals who then get killed for pulling it off, and the rich people involved in killing those involved. Dominik also takes the opportunity to inject some American political commentary, using the film as a way to emphasize that "America isn't a country - it's a business" (an actual line in it) by showing how even crime in America is like a business, too. He does this by setting it in 2008, at the time of the economic collapse, and with TVs planted throughout playing real speeches from George W. Bush and (at the time) Senator Barack Obama. Toss all of that together, with some fun criminals, guns, money, and you've got a good time.
There are a few elements of Dominik's Killing Them Softly that work, and work very well. First is his style, the way he shoots with a steady hand, and refined focus. There is an incredible scene, one of the few kills, right around the middle that employs some bullet-time-like slow-mo to show just how insanely brutal this kind of violence is. Pitt plays the "professional enforcer" who is hired, by the committee of rich folks, to clean up the mess and those involved in making the mess. He's a suave, calm, cool individual, and Pitt plays him with finesse, not overdoing any of his moments, but never really taking it to levels of "badass" either.
There are also a few elements of Dominik's Killing Them Softly that don't work. The story overall is a bit thin. If you remove all the political allegories, all that's left is a simple robbery, hitman, kill, clean up story that doesn't really bring much else to the table. There were also a few characters that seemed useless, with a slight build up but no progress, despite rambling commentary from their dialogue. James Gandolfini was, unfortunately, one of them who comes in, gets drunk, and goes out, that's it. Why was he there again? To represent the "beat down Americans" in this American politics bash? It didn't even seem necessary to have him, especially when it took away from letting them build up many of the other more interesting characters.
I can say with certainty that I am always up for being immersed in Andrew Dominik's style, the way he shoots and his camera placement is always refreshing to see. In Killing Them Softly, he gives us a couple of really fantastic moments, along with some otherwise dry commentary, that will satisfy and entice some, but leave others hungry for a bit more meat on the bone to chew through while watching. Pitt and the rest of the cast, especially Scoot McNairy, are excellent and the direction is meticulous, but it left me wanting more.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 7.5 out of 10