Film review: Killing Them Softly

HARD BOILED: Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, the best crime thriller since Drive.
HARD BOILED: Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, the best crime thriller since Drive.

Directed by Andrew Dominik. Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins.

In a nameless American city, a couple of wannabe hoodlums hold up an illegal poker game. They figure they're safe, because the very same game was robbed only a few years earlier, and they think the person responsible for the last robbery will also catch the blame for this one. And they're kind of right.

But wannabe hoodlums are nothing without their reputations, and so it's only a matter of time before one of them is boasting to his mates about the big score. Word gets around, and then the forces of all hell descend very quickly.

Put like that, Killing Them Softly sounds like a boiler plate crime yarn, something Elmore Leonard could have tapped out of a quiet evening without breaking a sweat. And, in a way, it is. This is a film that obeys the rules of structure and narrative to the letter. But in many other very important ways, Killing Them Softly is a true

This a grim, bleakly hilarious, and utterly engrossing film. Played out in a series of ruined buildings and rain-soaked urban wastelands against a backdrop of the 2008 American election, this is a film which cares about character, and comment, and social pathology, far more than it is concerned with the predictable mechanics of plot and storyline.

Films that begin with morons picking up guns will always end with the deaths or incarcerations of said morons. Those are the rules, and Killing Them Softly does not break them. But by dint of some breathtakingly well-wrought dialogue, an arty-as-hell sensibility behind the camera, and a handful of spectacularly good performances, the film transcends the genre, and starts to feel like a classic in the making.

Brad Pitt, finally putting away the irritating grab bag of tics and inflections he's been peddling for a decade, turns in his best performance since Se7en. James Gandolfini, playing a grotesque and washed up alcoholic hit man, does work that could quite possibly see him up for a best supporting actor nod come awards time. Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy are the two losers who unleash the mayhem, and they are both superb. Mendelsohn in particular, Australian accent proudly intact, puts together one of the least  likeable characters I've seen in a movie in years, yet he is absolutely mesmerising to watch.

Killing Them Softly is a film with a lot on its mind, performed by a selection of characters with very little on theirs. It is an American nightmare, played out to a soundtrack of campaign speeches and political rhetoric. Pitt's three-sentence evisceration of Obama's inauguration speech is an indelible moment - and as good a final shot as I've seen in months - in a film that strives for, and nearly achieves, the mythic quality of a classic western. It's not perfect, and it's certainly not subtle, but director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) has still made the best crime-thriller I've seen since Drive.

The Dominion Post