The dreams and promises of politicians are almost invariably exposed as nothing more than venal sales pitches when the cold light of day of reality smacks us round the face.
This has so rarely been the case than in 2008 when hope and change were being promised while the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression was unfolding before our eyes.
This particularly grim period of recent history serves as a running backdrop to Andrew Dominik’s deeply cynical third feature Killing Them Softly.
Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob-protected poker game run by low-life gangster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Although Trattman is the prime suspect, having previously ripped off his own game, enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is drafted in to find who is responsible and set things right.
Adapted from George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly, as well as being a highly satisfying genre film is also a none-to-subtle metaphor for an America that, according to Cogan isn’t “a country; it’s just a business”.
Although never seen, the mob’s prescence is felt throughout like a corporate version of Big Brother. They are represented by ‘Driver’ (Richard Jenkins), a cheap-suited lackey and glorified accountant who hires Cogan to do their dirty work. The financial cost is paramount, while the human cost is irrelevant as time and again the discussions between Driver and Cogan over what needs to be done (usually killing someone) are reduced to nothing more than dollars and cents.
The social commentary is difficult to chew at times. The opening sequence with Frankie walking through a tunnel filled with newspapers being blown about in the wind intercut with a hope-filled campaign speech by Barack Obama sets out the stall, while George W Bush’s panic-averting presidential address and the subsequent global financial collapse, heard on the radio or seen on TV play throughout like some perverted Greek chorus. Just to underline it all, the movie was shot and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that knows a thing or two about broken promises.
The down and dirty dialogue is a graduate of the David Mamet School of Vicious Language, while the visual flourishes adopted by Dominik lend the film an ugly beauty, most notably in a uncomfortably long scene when one poor schmuck gets an horrendous beating.
Killing Them Softly gives its entirely male cast many a memorable line and the stellar line-up lap up every one. Mendelsohn adds layers to what on paper could have been just another junkie part; Liotta’s Markie Trattman might as well be related to Henry Hill, the part he played in Goodfellas; while James Gandolfini is terrific as a down-at-heels hitman brought in by Cogan to assist with the job but who is unable to get past his own self-pity and the next drink. However, it’s Pitt who stands out, giving a superbly nuanced portrayal of a hitman who has the tools and the pithy conversation to match, but ultimately is in thrall to his paymasters and knows it.
Dominik is clearly fascinated with criminals in all their forms, whether they be the charismatic Australian murderer Mark Read in his debut feature Chopper (2000), or the enigmatic gun-slinger Jesse James is his masterful sophmore film The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007). Here, they are nothing more than self-serving reprobates, existing in a hellish America where hope and change are nothing more than words on bumper stickers.