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Monday, 24 September 2012

Killing Them Softly

I thought this was an excellent, superbly crafted thriller with a strong ensemble of performances and a really fascinating attempt to square what is essentially a gangster movie with the economic realities of recession era America. If you think the film is a Brad Pitt vehicle you'd be wrong. He doesn't appear until after roughly 20-25 minutes, and even then it's not all about his character. But this is exactly the point - it's about the everyday travails of the criminal working class and the necessity to carry out hits for money in order to survive. It's an intelligent update of the source material and provides for an interesting social commentary, but also some unexpectedly funny incidents - the opening robbery by two incompetent bit part gangsters demonstrates the lengths to which these criminals are willing to go to make money. In a way it's like an inverted Goodfellas (cf. casting of Ray Liotta) in which  the gangsters are scraping for pennies in a recession, not pulling scores in a boom.

When Brad Pitt is on a screen he's an engaging presence. An absolute professional in the way he treats his murder as work, he's a dispassionate killer trying to navigate through the underworld of blood money and gangster bureaucracy represented by Richard Jenkins go-between. Throughout their meetings there's a current of dark humour behind their conversations as Pitt's Cogan ridicules Jenkins about the gory as well as financial details of carrying out a beating on Liotta's Marky, who is suspected to be behind the robbery, after having set up the robbery of his own business before. That Cogan is more concerned about his potential earnings than the hit itself means we read his actions apart from the moral dimensions of good or bad - he's a pure pragmatist.

It's an interesting variation on the gangster genre, which when paralleled within the recent historical framework of the economic collapse half a decade ago gives the film a pointed set of politics. The opening and closing scenes of the film are book-ended by George Bush's speech to the nation announcing the collapse of Wall Street and the victory speech of Barack Obama, and throughout televisions blare out the doomed state of the economy. A lot of criticism has been levelled at the film's politics as being awkwardly superimposed but on the other hand I would argue that it works by reason that outside of the references that the series of President's speeches give us there are few identifying features to determine where in America the gangsters are operating. The film does suffer from some tonal inconsistency with an admittedly funny conversation between a stoned Squirrel and Frankie perhaps overly experimental but the target of the film is very clear. Pitt's final speech hammers the point home with a scathing revision of Thomas Jefferson and his final line is an absolute corker, cynically debunking the myth of America not as a united country, but an individualistic business machine where all is reduced to a dollar value.