(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 7 October, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/mobsters-on-a-different-plane)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini
Director: Andrew Dominik
Rating: 4.5 stars
When the man who gave us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford works with the likes of Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, it’s all about style. These are not films whose characters or plots matter. What we’ll remember are the lines. And the images. And the feeling that, somehow, we’re on the inside, not gawking at these people. We’re drinking with them, smoking up with them, stabbing and kneeing people like they do, wearing brass knuckles, sliding little guns in and out of our pockets and glove compartments, punctuating our sentences with swearwords. There’s a rookie who’s like us, of course, but we only feel contempt (and pity, if he’s played by a good actor) for him.
Set in 2008, in Anytown, America, Killing Them Softly deals in ideas. What does nationality mean? How much does community bind us? Where do we seek kinship? Whom can we count on? Do ugly mongrels we adopt truly love us, or pretend they do because we spare them the trouble of scavenging for morsels? What is a life worth, especially in recession time, and does it depend on the country we’re from? When we’re getting slower, where do we turn for assurance, for assertion of who we were?
What I like most about Softly is that, for all its Markies and Mickeys, its central characters are Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). It sweeps us away from the conventional mafia chase, nudging us to question whether names and ethnicities have any significance in a world where even crime has succumbed to the “total corporate mentality”, where it’s a “business of relationships” and a committee must consider the “public relations angle.”
Which brings me to the lines – good god, they hit you like a spoonful of Wasabi. There are tough-guy lines, there are pejorative lines, there are chauvinist lines, there are clever lines, there are where-I-was-when-you-were-a-
glint-in-the-milkman’s-eye lines, there are hilarious lines (such as Cogan’s explanation of the title). And then – there’s the last line, simply made to be said in a certain way by a certain kind of man. It’ll be quoted through the next three decades, and spoofed in the fourth. Because the hard realism in that line wipes the poetic sheen off the film.
Taking on every President from Jefferson to Obama, Softly juxtaposes news archives with film shots, mocks the predictability of election rhetoric and rides on its panache and saucy music, to make a strong statement on America.
The Verdict: You’ll leave the theatre smiling and shaking your head, knowing this was a great movie though you’re not sure how you’ll defend it.