If you think that crime pays, you’d better have the cojones to back it up, pal, because as Brad Pitt’s latest Oscar-baiting turn reminds us: In America, you’re on your own.
A couple of deadbeat hoods (Monsters’ Scoot McNairy and Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendehlson) think they’re being smart by robbing a mob-run card game, but the boneheads can’t keep their mouths shut. As the repercussions plunge the local criminal underworld into economic crisis, enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a too-cool-for-school professional enforcer tasked with putting things right and wreaking bloody vengeance on those responsible… softly.
Director Andrew Dominik’s first picture since 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is another tremendously stylish, darkly atmospheric, languorously paced thriller. This blackly comic film invites us into a seamy underworld, where there are no good guys, and where practically everyone is a bit of a fuck-up. All, that is, save Pitt’s sage, straight-shooting, mysterious hitman-with-the-plan.
Put the Oscar…in the bag…slowly…
Pitt’s icy cool turn as the goateed, leather-clad hunter is the standout performance in a picture loaded with high calibre acting talent. The Moneyball star exudes Shaft-like levels of ultra-cool menace, his eyes radiating a measured, threatening unflappability, in a role that is far from showy, but no less powerful for it. In a tremendously disquieting scene where he gives McNairy’s miscreant the shakedown, his affable, yet intimidating presence is unsettlingly reminiscent of his Inglourious Basterds co-star Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa.
McNairy is satisfyingly weaselly as reprobate Frankie, his fidgety, terrified hood-on-the-run often recalling Casey Affleck at his intense best. Aussie Mendehlson, too, is wonderfully unhinged as twitchy loose cannon Russell, skilfully portraying the sweaty, wild-eyed unpredictability of a man ruined by heroin. Popping up in the sort of role he does best, Ray Liotta is bravely vulnerable as unfortunate mobster Markie, who takes one hell of a beating. A sobbing, vomiting, bloody mess in a dressing gown, the Goodfellas star oozes pathos.
James Gandolfini shines too as a menacingly obnoxious, yet emotionally fragile, over-the-hill fellow enforcer, while Richard Jenkins, as Cogan’s mob contact, reminds us that, like a fine wine, he only improves with age. Dominik’s screenplay brims with fantastic dialogue, and scenes where Pitt and Jenkins shoot the shit and bemoan the mob’s ‘total corporate mentality’ are buoyantly enjoyable.
Weren’t you in Burn After Reading?
In his work with the Coens, Jenkins has revealed himself as a spirited raconteur, delivering snappy dialogue with wisened gusto, and here his verbal sparring with Pitt threatens to pull off a major heist, almost stealing the show.
With his cast offering such a wealth of riches, Dominik is careful not to drop the ball, furnishing his flick with wonderful, memorable visual flourishes. Filming in wrecked New Orleans, all wind-battered homes and cold, empty streets, his America is suitably drab and inhospitable. Greig Fraser’s painterly cinematography has an unmistakable arthouse feel, with one glorious scene audaciously depicting Russell’s experience of being wasted on junk, image and sound fluttering in and out of focus and clarity, riding on a wave of drug-addled bliss, The Velvet Underground droning away.
It is an incredibly trippy, gorgeous set-piece in a film bursting with them – one violent shooting is almost beautiful, captured in super stylish slow-motion, glass shattering to the soulful crooning of Kitty Lester.
The soundtrack is seriously cool, though music is used sparingly, with the inciting robbery scene featuring none at all, the relative silence making things all the more shudderingly intense. This is no hyper-stylised Point Break, but rather feels powerfully real. Dominik is a filmmaker who takes his time, lingering on such harrowing moments, forcing the audience to feel as distressed as his angst-ridden bandits. This is efficient, assured filmmaking.
…Softly is satisfyingly cerebral, yet slips up slightly in the clunky manner in which it tries to signpost itself as political allegory. At every turn, television and radio bulletins boom with the voice of politicians preaching ‘Change,’ ‘The American Promise,’ and other hollow sloganeering. It is far from subtle, as if Dominik doesn’t trust his audience to recognise the parallels with the state of modern America, in this satire about financial crisis in an economy funded by gambling.
Yes We CAN!!!
Though effortlessly slick, …Softly often lacks proper thrills. Great actors, though impressive, are never asked to stray too far from their comfort zones, and though the script crackles and fizzes, it could perhaps benefit from a little more action and less talk. Crucially, it often isn’t much fun and moviegoers who like their villains to Die Harder might find that Dominik kills ‘em a little too softly.
Dominik admirably avoids cliché and aided by a cracking ensemble cast delivers a gritty, compelling movie that could have swaggered straight out of Serpico’s seventies. And, like the sullen, merciless Cogan, it doesn’t fuck about in getting the job done.
Take a Drink: every time you hear Obama yakking in the background.
Take a Drink: whenever a character likes crime to big business.
Take a Drink: every time you wish they’d just shut up and get on with it.
Do a Shot: when someone dies really, rather beautifully.