Killing Them Softly

Just because a movie arrives in the cinematic graveyard of the week after Thanksgiving doesn’t mean it should be automatically written off. Sure, it’s the weekend that gave us The Warrior’s Way, Cadillac Records, and Awake (remember any of those?) in recent years, but the law of averages says that some year, eventually, there will be a halfway-decent week-after-Thanksgiving movie.

Turns out 2012 was the magic year.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James…) has broken through with a bloody and profane masterpiece that will unfortunately go largely ignored. Big mistake.

Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is as dirty and gritty as they come. Set in the brackish backwater of recession-heavy 2008 New Orleans, it’s a brutal, realistic mob film that instantly earns its place alongside Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. Those are big words, sure, but Killing Them Softly backs them up.

Brad Pitt stars as Jackie, a hit man sent by we’re-not-sure-whom to dispatch of two schlubs who knocked over a mob-run poker game. Richard Jenkins is the middle-man who’s pulling the strings, and Ray Liotta is the poor sap who runs the ill-fated card game. Along with James Gandolfini as Jackie’s fellow hit man and Scoot McNairy as one of the schlubs, it’s a cast that combines to be one of the finest acting ensembles of the year.

It’s clear that Dominik fancies himself more of a fine artist and wordsmith than director. His dialogue-driven screenplay is an oddly captivating collection of innocuous conversations, buoyed by career-best performances, particularly from Pitt and Gandolfini.

Dominik abandons many of the conventions of filmmaking to offer up his highly-stylized vision, and, as a result, Killing Them Softly will likely alienate many people expecting a straight-up, shoot-’em-up flick. When’s the last time you were awed by a slo-mo headshot execution framed perfectly by raindrops and sparkling shards of broken glass, set to the dulcet tones of Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters”? You will be, here.

Killing Them Softly will take a long-distant backseat to Bond, Breaking Dawn, and heady Oscar fodder at the box office, and that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the more brilliant works of sight and sound to hit theaters this year.

4.5/5 stars