Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is an enforcer, and when the mob's rules get broken, Cogan is called in to take care of business. This time a high-stakes card game has been held up by an unknown gang of thugs. Calculating, ruthless, businesslike, and with a shrewd sense of other people's weaknesses, Cogan plies his trade, moving among a variety of hoods, hangers-on, and big-timers, tracking those responsible, and returning "law and order" to the lawless Boston underworld.

Gambling heist mirrors wider financial crisis.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Andrew Dominik's winking dark comedy/drama draws neat parallels between Wall Street's acts of general bastardry, and the world of Boston gangsters. It’s set in late-2008 and the economy is in the toilet, but the GFC at the heart of Killing Them Softly is more a 'Goodfella Financial Crisis' than a Global one. 

Dominik adapted George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade by transplanting the '70s-set pulp paperback to the chaotic Presidential campaign of 2008, when a spate of homeowner defaults exposed widespread mortgage frauds in the US financial sector. Dominik read the grisly novella as a portrait of an economic collapse, as an industry downturn takes its toll and causes even the highest paid wiseguys to take a pay cut and fly economy.

The movie's set up will sound familiar to anyone who can vaguely recall the securities frauds that set off the global panic:  An 'inside job' almost cripples the local economy, and the surprise heist has the Powers That Be in a flap, and under pressure to restore order and revive investor confidence. They need scapegoats, fast.

Here, the snoozy regulators are the operators of an underworld gambling den, and they're under intense pressure (i.e. bullet-through-the-windscreen kind of pressure) to find the culprits, placate skittish high rollers and lure them back to the tables. The nature of the catastrophe demands quick and decisive leadership and the cool head in this particular crisis belongs to Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, natch).

In Cogan's line of work, an occupational hazard is having to witness grown men howl like babies, as they plead for leniency and for Coganto spare their lives. Mortified on their behalf for these last-minute lapses in machismo, Cogan prefers to dispense his personal brand of justice "softly", from a distance, where there’s less chance of things getting "touchy feely".

Writer/director Dominik has a gift for crafting tough guys who are as fallible as they are gullible, as they strive to realise their own mythologised rise through the criminal ranks. He creates a rogue’s gallery of: naïve bottom-feeders (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNary); top dogs turned lame (James Gandolfini); jittery prodigal sons (Ray Liotta); and dour bean-counters (Richard Jenkins). This is the endearingly miserable bunch that Cogan encounters when he blows into town to put things right (to the strains of Johnny Cash’s 'The Man Comes Around’). 

As with his past efforts, the calling card Chopper and the critically acclaimed-but-box-office-deficient The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik enables the conversation flow to set the pace, and with stylised 'action’, ruminates on the violent world these men inhabit. 

In his most commercial effort to date, Dominik ensures his crafty metaphor is signposted and spotlit in audio cues throughout and in a final fiery soliloquy from his protagonist that makes plain the connection once more. Irritating as the through line’s lack of subtlety may be, it’s still about the least worst thing you can say about a film that is unashamedly designed for the multiplex.



Watch 'Killing Them Softly'

Friday 4 June, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand) 

MA15+, CC
USA, 2012
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Language: English
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard


Watch: Andrew Dominik talks 'Killing Them Softly'