Every now and again a movie comes along that grabs you by the lapels, throws you against a wall and demands to be seen.
Anzac writer-director Andrew Dominik’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ is one of those films.
Based on George V Higgins’ 1974 pulp novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, this is a Mob movie that’s more than just a Mob movie.
Transplanting the action to 2008 against the backdrop of the financial collapse and Barack Obama’s battle with John McCain for the White House, it literally begins in a wasteland – a moral and economic wasteland.
Disjointed audio of a Barack Obama campaign speech accompanies images of rubbish blowing around the streets of an unnamed American city littered with derelict buildings, as low level hoodlum, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) makes his way to a rendezvous with Aussie heroin addict, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
Frankie and Russell have been lured to a meeting with laundry owner Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) who has a failsafe plan to rob an illicit card game for Mobsters.
Normally any criminal who dares to rob such a game is effectively signing his own death warrant but what makes the heist so attractive is that the host, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) has previously staged a robbery of one of his own games, got away with it and then drunkenly confessed to it.
With Markie living on borrowed time, Amato believes he will be the fall guy for the Mafia if another heist takes place. While Markie suffers the consequences, Amato believes the robbers will enjoy their spoils.
The robbery, of course, triggers a Mob investigation, with the bosses asking a hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to find out who really was responsible and “take care” of them. This sets in train a bloody series of events.
So far, so Scorsese or so ‘Sopranos’.
But what sets ‘Killing Them Softly’ apart is the intelligence of its screenplay, the quality of the filmmaking and the uniform excellence of its cast.
Dominik directs his movie with unshakeable confidence and admirable economy. At a running time of just 97 minutes, the director hits his stride quickly and never lets up.
He is boosted by Greig Fraser’s dark, moody cinematography which perfectly captures the sense of doom and gloom which envelops the unnamed city in which it is set and the characters that inhabit it. There’s also some stylish film editing by Brian A Kates and John Paul Horstmann – the first assassination sequence is a particular tour de force.
Following his collaboration with Dominik in the classy Western ‘The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Howard’, Pitt once again stretches himself as Cogan – a smart, talkative and squeamish hitman, with a Colonel Sanders beard, who would rather kill his victims from a distance than watch them writhe in pain at close range.
Dominik surrounds Pitt with an accomplished cast – Richard Jenkins impresses as the hassled, corrupt lawyer the Mob dispatches to hire Cogan.
James Gandolfini lights up the screen as a heavy drinking, depressed hired gun Cogan recruits to work alongside him. Gandolfini’s character Mickey is Tony Soprano without the authority, the charisma or the proper medication and he turns in one of the supporting performances of the year.
Vincent Curatola, who ‘Sopranos’ devotees will remember as Tony’s menacing New York rival Johnny Sac, also turns in a strong performance as a criminal several notches down the Mafia rung, while McNairy and Mendelsohn are cast perfectly as big talking losers who are dangerously out of their depth.
As the pathetic Markie, Ray Liotta is a world away from Henry Hill, the cocky gangster anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Good Fellas’. It is another impressive addition to Liotta’s gallery of losers.
There is also a delicious cameo from the great American playwright and actor, Sam Shepard as Dillon, a Mob enforcer.
Pitt holds his own in such august company and his performance could well earn him another Oscar nomination, following his turn as Billy Beane in the baseball/business allegory, ‘Moneyball’.
With ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Good Fellas’ and Francis Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ representing high watermarks in the Mafia genre, Dominik wisely takes a different course, using the gangster movie as an acerbic commentary on the malaise gripping contemporary America.
Some of the criminals in ‘Killing Them Softly’ feel like middle managers, weighed down and consumed by bureaucracy, corruption, infidelity and avarice.
Money motivates them and the society they live in so much that it has lost its true value and everyone has lost their moral compass.
As if to hammer this home, the soundtrack of the film memorably mixes Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’, Kitty Lester’s version of ‘Love Letters’, Petula Clark singing ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ and Cliff ‘Ukelele Ike’ Edwards’ ‘Paper Moon’ with snatches of speeches at the time of the economic crisis from Barack Obama, John McCain and President George W Bush.
The screenplay, at times, also has the feel of a David Mamet play in its pace and its aggressive macho tone – Frankie, Russell and Johnny Amato are all low life characters who would be right at home in Mamet’s ‘American Buffalo’.
And in this mostly male and macho world, it is striking that there are no female characters of any note in the movie – a prostitute (Linara Washington) briefly appears, as does Johnny Amato’s mistress but they have little to contribute.
Indeed when Frankie and Russell or Mickey talk about women it is in the most degrading manner – although this only serves to underscore that these are American males in crisis, living empty, meaningless, cheap lives.
The Mob bosses are also unusually absent for a gangster picture, preferring to keep the film’s characters at arm’s length to do all the dirty work.
There is no doubt ‘Killing Them Softly’ is an angry film. Dominik is disillusioned with the direction the US has taken and the trail of destruction capitalist excesses have left in their wake.
In many ways, it is the cinematic companion piece to Bruce Springsteen’s recent album ‘Wrecking Ball’ – sharing Springsteen’s bitterness at the “robber barons” who have crippled communities in America’s industrial heartlands.
The movie perfectly captures the mood of a disaffected America in election year – a Disunited States whose hope and energy has been sapped by partisan politics, empty rhetoric, shrill media debates, wild commercial excesses and a brutal economic recession.
And it is a stark reminder of the huge challenge facing whoever emerges victorious in the battle to occupy the White House next year.
The movie is worth it just for Brad Pitt’s final parting shot – a punchline, which I won’t spoil, that is stunningly and brilliantly executed.