Out this week: Killing Them Softly

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November 30, 2012 by abbyo

Andrew Dominik’s movies never turn out to be what they look like at first glance. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” his 2007 breakthrough, was a revisionist western that turned out to be a much more psychological film, a think piece on what makes legends legends, particularly in the grand, tall-tale American tradition. Similarly, Dominik’s new movie, “Killing Them Softly,” is not the plain, shoot-‘em-up brad-pitt-new-killing-them-softly-posterscrime thriller it’s advertised as (do not believe those lackluster TV spots for a second). Instead the movie, out today, examines the very nature of America itself from a rather grim perspective that sharply contrasts lofty American exceptionalism with ground-level greed and corruption.

It is, without a doubt, the most interesting wide-release movie you’re likely to see this year.

The story, adapted from the novel “Cogan’s Trade,” follows an armed robbery at a mob-run card game, and its aftermath. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is on the hunt for the no-account punks behind the stickup (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn). It doesn’t take long to figure out who’s responsible, and the rest of the film is concerned with Pitt planning the best way to locate and dispose of the small-time crooks.

It’s a simple plot, but Dominik’s movie is anything but conventional. Perhaps the best thing about “Killing Them Softly” is how consistently surprising the movie is, and how creative it gets with such a straightforward story. It’s beefed up with ambitious camera shots, incredible performances (McNairy, Pitt and James Gandolfini each deserve enough awards to sink a yacht), and strong vein of dark humor that elevate this film to a level previously only achieved by “Sexy Beast.”

The movie’s also got a subtext which proves to be both another interesting surprise, and the movie’s biggest weakness. Dominik sets his film in 2008, placing the characters smack in the middle of the high-minded rhetoric of that year’s election, and the start of the credit crisis. He never passes up an opportunity to play the hope of the Obama scott-mcnairy-killing-them-softlycampaign and the weird bloodlessness of Wall Street scandals against the desperate, blood-soaked nature of the action he shows on screen. In Dominik’s assessment, the only thing exceptional about America is how deceptively communal it is. This is a place where we’re told we all look out for each other, but in reality, we’re all looking out for ourselves. The consequences of that are someone else’s problem, right up until the consequences shoot you in the back of the head.

The heavy-handed obviousness of that message gets a little overdone, but it works very well with the story being told, and provides some moments that hit a little closer to home than I’d like to admit. It’s a bitter, negative outlook, to be sure, but Dominik’s compelling thesis never loses its direction, and it makes for one heck of a crime movie. “Killing Them Softly” is the kind of movie that’s destined for cult appreciation. It’s not for everyone, but the people it reaches are going to love it.

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