With its premiere at Cannes one year on, it's hard to imagine that Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly won't be compared frequently to Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 hit Drive. The comparison would be apt. Both films portray a stylized, raw, and violent vision of reality. They both represent the cutting edge of storytelling from two of the brightest up and coming directors. Oh, and both films might just be the best of their respective years.
Based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins and adapted by Dominik, Killing Them Softly is a gritty crime tale of Mafia hitmen and petty thugs. Brad Pitt gets top billing as hitman Jackie Cogan, but he is far less the protagonist than Ryan Gosling's Driver in Refn's film. While mostly linear, Killing Them Softly follows a more episodic structure that finds its cast sharing meaty scenes as the story slowly unfolds (though it should be noted, not nearly as slowly as Dominik's last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
Scoot McNairy shines as a low life criminal looking to make a quick buck after being released from the pen. Beside him, Ben Mendelsohn delivers in a performance every bit as memorable as his turn in Animal Kingdom; here he plays a strung-out convict with nothing to lose. When the two thugs knock over a card game run by mobster Ray Liotta, it's time for Mafia money man Richard Jenkins to call in the guns. These come in the form of Pitt's Cogan, and later, an unforgettable performance as a down on his luck and drunk off his ass hitman by James Gandolfini. These are awards-caliber performances by every member of the notably all male cast (the lone female role is a prostitute with only a few lines), though it would seem most likely for Pitt and especially Gandolfini to get the attention.
For all the praise due the cast, it is Dominik's stylish storytelling that steals the show. Devices like an incredible bullet-time sequence serve to enhance the narrative as well as adding an unforgettable cool factor. Additional praise should be saved for the exquisite sound mix, elements of which play right into the story as well. This is one movie that begs to be seen in a theater that isn't afraid to play it loud.
Though the location setting is a bit vague (Louisiana seems the most likely), the time is firmly rooted in the run-up to the 2008 election. Speeches by candidate Obama and President Bush on the bank bailouts and state of the economy are featured to the point of being a bit heavy-handed. But this all adds to Dominik's milieu of a fucked up world where danger lurks around every corner. It might not be the most encouraging world to live in, but damn if it isn't an exhilarating place to visit.
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. Killing Them Softly opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, November 30, 2012.