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Brutal mob crime drama is skillfully told

 


“Killing Them Softly”

(R, Now avail.)

Going back to 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," cinematic history has been full of films about criminals. These movies take us into a world that most of us (for good reason) will never know and our fascination with them hasn't wavered for what's now been over a century. So when a crime film comes along with a completely different point of view, it's worth paying attention to. With his third directorial effort, Andrew Dominik takes his third venture into the world of crime and the result is not only unique, it was my favorite movie of 2012.

Amidst the financial collapse of 2008, small time crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) has hatched a plan to rob an illegal high stakes poker game. The robbery is to be executed by one man he knows and trusts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy, "In Search of a Midnight Kiss," "Argo"), and Frankie's friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, "Animal Kingdom," "The Dark Knight Rises"), whom Johnny takes an intense dislike to within a moment of meeting him. Reluctantly, Johnny agrees to bring Russell on board, perhaps because he is so confident his plan will work.

The game is being run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a man who, a few years earlier, had drunkenly admitted to once robbing his own poker game. But time had passed since the robbery and "everybody likes Markie, they gave him a pass." Another such robbery, however, would surely be blamed on Markie, Johnny surmises, and after his Mafia execution the matter would be considered settled. But when dumb criminals are involved it's never that simple and a man (a hitman to be precise) like Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) has to come in to clean up the mess.

Based upon the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade (and obviously updated for the time period), "Killing Them Softly" marks the return of writer-director Andrew Dominik five years after "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford." If you know me at all, then you know I love that film almost as much as life itself. It's a wonderful surprise then that, while his filmmaking sensibility is instantly recognizable, this is a movie that goes almost the opposite direction in many respects but completely successfully.

A full hour shorter than "Assassination," "Killing Them Softly" is a movie that flies by thanks to its crackling dialogue and lean storytelling. It's alive from its opening frame and, while it takes us to very dark places, it makes the world of organized crime relatable in a way I've never seen on film before.

Dominik presents the Mafia as an organization like any other business. There's a corporate structure and all of the annoyances that come with working for someone you perceive as far less intelligent than you.

After one of the coolest character introductions you'll ever see, you find Cogan to be strangely sympathetic. He pushes to execute someone rather than tow the company line by beating a man senseless before killing him. We share his frustration as he deals with Mafia middleman Driver (Richard Jenkins) and the utterly useless "New York" Mickey (James Gandolfini), for whom he must pick up the slack. Quite simply, Jackie Cogan is the Everyhitman. Pitt is positively stellar in the role.

As with "Assassination," Dominik surrounds Pitt with a pitch perfect cast. The scenes between Pitt and Jenkins are darkly funny and highlight the nature of working for the mob as being a job with headaches like any other. Liotta is terrific as Trattman, a character who is a far cry from Henry Hill and a guy that you can't help but feel sympathy for. Mendelsohn's Russell is one of the bigger low lifes in recent movie memory. The character's uselessness and stupidity is astonishing and Mendelsohn brings it all to life. McNairy meanwhile quietly delivers another excellent performance as the scared Frankie. You still may not know his name but he's an actor who's been popping up more and more over the past few years and one I'm really rooting for. He more than holds his own in his scenes with Pitt.

"The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" was a beautifully shot character study with a majestic musical score. The film had a poetic quality. It took its time. "Killing Them Softly" is an electric, brutal crime film with the sounds of fists and guns serving as its score. In the world of this movie, theft and murder are just a part of a day at the office and everybody wants to get paid, but some deserve it more than others.

While this movie is anything but a comedy or a "delightful romp," I still couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I watched Andrew Dominik's triumphant return unfold. This is really special filmmaking. I can't emphasize enough how much you need to see this movie. 10/10.

 

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