George V. Higgins wrote downbeat Nixon-era crime novels like The Friends of Eddie Coyle (turned by director Peter Yates into a bleakly brilliant vehicle for an aging Robert Mitchum), pulp fictions full of toothy, profane dialogue and petty-criminal patois, with all the pitch-perfect accuracy of a court stenographer. Though its publication predated Watergate by several years, there’s something especially resonant for the times in its sad saga of busted dreams and quisling betrayals. Updating Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade for the new millennium, Andrew Dominik sets Killing Them Softly against the onset of the economic meltdown and the run-up to the 2008 election, a thread of radio reports and TV spots running through the film like a leitmotif, all the better to establish Killing Them Softly’s thematic core: “America isn’t a country, it’s a business.” Whether the cash gushes forth from subprime mortgages or high-stakes poker games, disruption to the status quo can’t be abided, and necessary measures will be taken to reestablish its steady flow.
In the case of Killing Them Softly, wherein a couple of criminal caste bottom-feeders conspire to rip off a mob-run card game, those necessary measures come in the form of one Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). The slicked-back hair and black leather jacket are all the indication you need to know you’re looking at one smooth fixer. As solid as Pitt is here, working once again in squinty, snarky Tyler Durden mode, ultimately he winds up playing straight man to a colorful supporting cast that includes Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the bickering petty criminal pair and James Gandolfini as a hit man who hits the booze and bitches in an attempt to eclipse his own private woes. In fact, Pitt doesn’t even show up until almost half an hour into the film. It’s indicative of the film’s sly and satirical tone that Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “The Man Comes Around” plays Cogan onto the scene, just as (in a clear nod to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet) Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters” orchestrates one of Cogan’s hits, rendering the killing a glass-spraying, bullet-time ballad. Other bravura set pieces abound, from the initial holdup, accomplished in several sinuous Steadicam shots, to a subjectively filmed smack-shooting session scored to the Velvet Underground.
With his latest, Dominik mines an altogether different vein, worlds apart from the mournful, meditative, Malickian The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Yet his approach to the material feels entirely assured, anchored this time out by Greig Fraser’s grimy, granulated cinematography. In many ways, Killing Them Softly makes a perfect companion piece to Dominik’s previous film, amplifying and modifying its themes, while at the same time working within an entirely new generic approach. Both films are equally about mythmaking and myth-breaking. In Jesse James, the unrelenting quest for fame and fortune will get you nowhere but dead. Killing Them Softly, especially in its final scene, debunks the illusion that there’s any adhesive that can keep together the fabric of the body politic, delivering a curt rebuff to the bluff and bluster of election-eve sloganeering. And the malaise goes deeper, on down into the very belly of being. As one of the doomed gunmen puts it, “The world’s shit. And we’re all alone.”
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.