Killing Them Softly Review – First World Gangster

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik (screenplay), George V. Higgins (novel)

Stars: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta

Release date: November 30th, 2012

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Country: USA

Running time: 97 minutes


Best part: Brad Pitt’s phenomenal take on the assassin character.

Worst part: The occasionally inexplicable gangster discourse.

This year, both Lawless and Killing Them Softly contained Australian directors tackling gritty crime stories. Whereas Lawless presents a fun yet violent view of prohibition-era gangster culture, Killing Them Softly steps significantly away from this style to contemplate the relevance of gangster culture in the 21st century. The result is a witty and tension filled crime drama, as Killing Them Softly subverts the cliché assassin character lifestyle and puts a fresh spin on the gangster’s economic and political status in our current financial climate.

Brad Pitt & Richard Jenkins.

Brad Pitt & Richard Jenkins.

This brutal yet enjoyably rambunctious thriller is based in the economic decay of the year 2008. The presidential race is won by Barrack Obama and the country is left in tatters by George W. Bush’s unfortunate time in office. Goofy mobster Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is released from prison and is desperate for one last job. After meeting up with his obnoxious partner in crime and dog thief Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), they hold up a high stakes mobster protected poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Threatening the mob structure of New Orleans, the robbery is investigated by professional assassin Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). Before tracking down both criminals, Cogan hires broken down hitman New York Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him track down everyone involved before the money disappears.

Ben Mendelsohn & Scott McNairy.

Ben Mendelsohn & Scott McNairy.

Based on the crime novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Andrew Dominik (ChopperThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) creates a crime thriller with similar elements of his first two features. The film is a subtle and contemplative look at the gangster life in America from Dominik’s foreign outsider perspective. The gangster version of the American dream is succinctly compared to the current economic structure of the United States. The criminal and first world perspectives of several characters are found to have many similarities, conveying a dour world in which the greedy, violent and rich succeed over everyone else. Despite the overbearing use of TV and radio to communicate the presidential debates, the memorable speeches of both presidents act as narration for several moments of pain for these suffering characters. This discussion of America’s post-economic depression is also relevant in the wake of 2012’s presidential elections, subtly commenting on the Obama government’s effect on the world over the last few years. At a swift 97 minutes, Dominik directs with the quick wit and flair of crime genre masters Guy Richie and Quentin Tarantino. The extended dialogue sequences give each character their own interpretation of their current predicament in this crumbling infrastructure. Each criminal is affected by the first world. Whether escaping the hold of prison, marriage, capitalism, drugs or money. It’s a lower-class hatred of the middle and higher class, subverting the thrills gained by several cheeky anti hero characters in modern crime capers.

“They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill ’em softly. From a distance.” (Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), Killing Them Softly).

James Gandolfini.

Tightly edited, expletive filled and snappily worded, the dialogue sequences extend into nail-biting tension, with the audience concerned for the fate of each character. This is truly a man’s world; with no female characters in sight besides a vicious hooker. The male led democracy we live in is torn down by the strong characters here, with death falling upon the weakest of gangsters. The performances create several strange and thrilling characters in this intertwining narrative of resentful and violent sociopaths. Complaining about the bureaucracy of his own department, Richard Jenkin’s accountant is a likeable and sorry soul, forcing his status as the messenger upon Pitt’s assassin. Gandolfini subverts his leader and family man status from hit HBO series The Sopranos with his broke, drunken and divorced hit-man, while Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) portrays a down on his luck dealer with a balance of charm and desperation. Pitt’s second collaboration with Dominik has created a significantly different take on the witty yet resentful assassin character, portrayed recently by Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper. Pitt’s Jackie craves his profession, choosing to shut out emotion for the sake of his well manufactured craft. Taking out his targets from an affecting distance to avoid their emotional response, every blood splatter and slo-mo sequence surrounding him depicts the well thought out structure of each assassination. His black clothing, slick hair and well-trimmed goatee create an enviable presentation of the smooth yet vicious Cogan.

Thanks to Dominik’s assured writing and direction, Killing Them Softly balances everything with style and class. Gripping onto genre tropes, a political commentary, and wacky characters, the movie avoids regular flaws by sticking it it’s, ahem, guns.

Verdict: The most gripping and delectable crime flick since The Departed.

Lawless Review – Blood-stained Blokes

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Nick Cave (screenplay), Matt Bondurant (book)

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman

Release date: August 29th, 2012

Distributors: The Weinstein Company, FilmNation Entertainment 

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


Best part: Guy Pearce’s creepy turn.

Worst part: The unbalanced narrative.

The prohibition era gangster film has always been a popular movement in modern cinema. Despite their period piece settings, films such as Miller’s Crossing, Public Enemies and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (comedic example) have brought the genre into the contemporary filmmaking era with dashes of wit and violence. The latest presentation of 1930’s gangster life, Lawless, is a gritty, authentic yet confused retrospective of the infamous Bondurant brothers. Continuing the current trend of prohibition-era crime drama, born from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Lawless is a pulpy, visceral yet profound lesson in gangster lore.

Shia LaBeouf & Mia Wasikowska.

Shia LaBeouf & Mia Wasikowska.

The Bondurant brothers were supposedly immortal moonshine makers and runners, situated in the hills outside of a crime-ridden Chicago. With Al Capone and other dangerous men ruling the city, the Bondurants were in charge if the regional distribution of illegal alcoholic substances. Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clark) are two of the most notoriously violent citizens of a broken United States. The youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) wants to be just like them, trying anything to prove his worth to his older siblings. Their control of the countryside is interrupted however by the introduction of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), determined to destroy every drop from their distillery. Along with an alluring new bartender (Jessica Chastain), the brothers fight to keep their reputations alive and the dirty cops at bay.

Tom Hardy.

Tom Hardy.

The film successfully combines old and new Hollywood-style crime genre conventions. The strong, straight edged characters are brought to life with every gun shot, punch and stab, containing a loud ring to effectively depict every brutal act in this vile conflict. The third film by Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) is a dirty and hauntingly authentic look at so-called true events. The story of the Bondurant brothers is presented from Jack’s point of view. Unfortunately, this narrow presentation of gangster life and family bonds in the southern districts of America only focuses on the exploits behind Jack’s one dimensional goals. His eagerness to join the running and distilling business leaves little development for the other, more intriguing characters in this meaty story. Despite his character’s naive and occasionally banal nature, LaBeouf puts in a revelatory performance that could hopefully lift his controversial career. The other characters in this enthralling saga are performed convincingly despite the lack of development. Tom Hardy, continuing his promising year after breathtaking performances in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, creates a loyal yet remorseless interpretation of the gangster who lives on his own terms. Despite his nearly inaudible southern drawl, Hardy’s physical presence and piercing stare creates a fierce leader with a slight vulnerable side. Also enrapturing in their small roles are the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, Noah Taylor, Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love interest Bertha and Gary Oldman as influential outlaw Floyd Banner.

“It is not the violence that sets men apart, alright, it is the distance that he is prepared to go.” (Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), Lawless).

Guy Pearce.

Guy Pearce.

This adaptation of the novel The Wettest County in the World by descendant Matt Bondurant succeeds in creating a darkly rich re-creation of 30’s America. Influenced by prolific crime directors such as the Coen Brothers, Brian De Palma and Michael Mann, Hillcoat efficiently emphasises the earthy and unflattering tones of every bar, dirt road and blood stained room in this era of temptation and cruel violence. Silhouettes and low lighting also effectively capture the depths these characters have fallen into, while the authentic Virginian setting depicts a southern community quickly falling to the evolving landscape of a changing century. The film continues Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave’s flair for punishingly affecting violence and torture sequences. Matching the whipping scenes of Australian western The Proposition and cannibalism in The Road, Lawless lives up to its name and the characters live up to their frightening reputations. Blood splatters all over the walls, gun fights and punch ups are handled with a shocking level of detail, creating many uncomfortable and even blackly comedic moments. Much of the violence and wit is convincingly handled through a passionate performance by Australian actor Guy Pearce. Rakes lashes out at the Bondurant Brothers with a strong distaste for their freedoms and practises. Creating one of the most disgusting yet pampered characters since Alex in A Clockwork Orange, his relentless nature, snarly accent and unique mannerisms create a truly threatening interpretation of the dirty detective character.

Bolstered by Boardwalk Empire’s immense success, Lawless is the latest effort to hop on the cinematic anti-hero wave. Thanks to Cave’s prose and Hillcoat’s style, this gangster flick sucks the stills dry and never lets up!

Verdict: An unfocused yet engaging gangster flick.