Stellar cast highlights 'Killing Them Softly'

Brad Pitt in "Killing Them Softly."
November 18, 2012

Much like last year’s “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, I sense audiences going to see Brad Pitt’s latest, “Killing Them Softly,” are going to be quite unsure of what to make of the picture. From the casting (“Goodfella’s” Ray Liotta! “The Sopranos’” James Gandolfini!) to the marketing - right down to the poster of a shotgun-toting Pitt - you might envision a gritty, action-stuffed Mob flick.

And while those promises don’t go unfulfilled, it’s going leave the average filmgoers scratching their noggins. But for those who revel in craft and content, director Andrew Dominik adds not only style but substance to the genre that typically sacrifices one for the other.

Dominik last left us with the criminally underseen “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” with Pitt as the lead. It was a contemplative Western that moved as gracefully as wind over a wheat field. He’s decided to take the same deliberate approach to the Mob movie, with almost obsessive attention to detail: the chiaroscuro lighting, the eclectic, ironic soundtrack, the intimate camera angles.

Based on the book “Cogan’s Trade,” a rather obscure 1974 crime novel from author George V. Higgins, “Softly” casts Pitt as a professional enforcer who is hired to investigate a heist that interrupted a Mob-sponsored poker game.

The film updates the novel, setting it in a post-Katrina New Orleans, and the rhetoric of the upcoming 2008 presidential election echoes throughout. This is quite purposeful, as we watch what can happen to an economy in a situation of unregulated gambling.

And for those thinking that the film packs a partisan rage, fingers are pointed in all directions for negligence, unfulfilled promises and deliberate use of tragedy for political power. It’s far from subtle in its indictment, but it adds a sting to the proceedings and actually manages to become a character within the film.

And speaking of characters, “Softly” is rich with them. Liotta’s jittery Markie Trattman is a scumbag, but he gets taught a lesson that no one deserves. It’s a scene so jarring in its unpredictable brutality, it’s almost hard to witness. Much like “Drive” punctuated its story with left-field violence, “Softly’s” punches are much more resonant because of their infrequency. Another standout performance is courtesy of Ben Mendelsohn, last seen in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as Russell. He’s a drug-addled wild card that is both comedic and tragic in the actor’s hands.

Pitt anchors the film with his smooth, hair-trigger approach. His Jackie Cogan is a fixer in the classic sense. He is mentally and physically powerful, but his relationships are all superficial and to his own gain. It may be a sad existence, but in his profession it’s essential. And he’s damn good at what he does.

I have no doubt that the film will frustrate and confound some audience members hungry for nonstop action and bloodshed. But while it delivers on the brutality, it pauses for long stretches in between to soak in its gritty, rain-drenched atmosphere, allowing us to draw parallels to the state of the country and those who promise to help us reach higher ground - socially, economically or physically.

The film might conclude too abruptly for some, with no definitive visual resolution. But for those who like to listen to, as well as watch, their movies, Pitt’s final lines pack a devastating wallop that ends the film better than any shot of characters riding into a sunset ever could.