Lethal. Cold. Innovative. Andrew Dominik’s wildly underrated crime thriller Killing Them Softly was one of the best movies from 2012, and it stands as a personal favorite in this well-travelled genre. I love sleazy stories about disreputable characters and this film lovingly explores the criminal underworld with dark humor, graphic (and scary) violence, and a ruthless and impactful message about capitalism that perfectly serves the savage material. Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik went for the throat with this spare and brutal piece of crime fiction, presenting a bleak worldview that feels appropriately cynical. Brad Pitt went extra mean in this film as a deadly mob enforcer who lives by a very strict code of conduct. His tack-sharp performance feels like a spiritual cousin to his work and character in Ridley Scott’s brilliant, diamond-cut thriller The Counselor; I love how Pitt seems unafraid to shred his pretty-boy image with degenerate scum such as these guys in these particular films, going with ungainly facial hair and allowing his great looks to be repeatedly upended. He’s been one of my favorite actors for the last 20 years for many reasons; I can think of so few films that he’s starred in that I haven’t enjoyed. And coming after The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik yet again switched gears and styles, but presented no less of an all-encompassing atmosphere and cinematic world.
In Killing them Softly, Pitt is called in to handle a relatively straight forward situation after two drug-addict losers (the fantastic pair of Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, grimy and glazed-over and lovingly desperate) knock over a mob-controlled poker game being supervised by a low-level hood (Ray Liotta, perfectly pathetic). Richard Jenkins lays on the smarm as Pitt’s casually funny criminal world contact who serves as the middle man, and James Gandolfini brilliantly subverts his own gangster visage with a sad and delicate portrayal of an alcoholic, depressed hit-man who doesn’t have the physical energy or mental strength to do what’s asked of him. The scene with Gandolfini, Pitt, and a tired prostitute who takes no shit is one of the sharpest, funniest bits of cinema in recent memory, totally vulgar and grotesque and beautifully acted by the trio; just watch Pitt’s genius facial expressions during this entire back and forth. This is a nasty movie about nasty people doing nasty things, with lots of vulgar discussions of sex by low-class hoodlums, and more than one instance of punishing, crushing violence. And I love the ferocious final moment of the movie with Pitt and Jenkins at the bar – it’s note perfect how this movie finishes up. Dominik’s terse dialogue is grim and masculine and poetic, and the obsessive detail he takes with each character makes for an extremely rewarding viewing experience. Greig Fraser’s dynamic, beyond stylish cinematography is always finding new and interesting ways to visually convey ideas and themes, with the wonderfully attuned editing in perfect synch with the style of the imagery. And the way Dominik uses sound is nothing short of show-stopping, as numerous scenes take on an extra, ominous edge due to the sonic quality.
At this point, I’ll happily follow Dominik anywhere he goes as a filmmaker. His searing debut, the Australian prison film Chopper, showcased a then-unknown Eric Bana in a performance that sits alongside Tom Hardy in Bronson, Michael Fassbender in Hunger, and Jack O’Connell in Starred Up. His second film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was one of many masterpieces released in the crowded 2007 season, and it never truly got the attention it deserved. And much like Jesse James, Killing Them Softly was another effort that came and went with barely a mention from critics at zero attention from the Academy, a movie that was well received but that died a quick commercial death. Granted, it’s not a happy-go-lucky little movie or an easy to digest studio potboiler with at least one sympathetic character, but it deserved to do better at the box office, and it’s a movie that seems to have slipped by a great number of people. If you like your crime films to be unsentimental, menacing, and distinctly funny thanks to a sick sense of humor, look no further than this edgy, volatile effort that seems delighted by the sordid lives of low-class reprobates.