Crime does pay and the price tag is your life in Killing Them Softly, an artfully composed, slow-burning crime thriller based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik, who previous helmed The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, transplants the setting of the book from 1970s Boston to 2008 Louisiana, using the passing of the political baton from outgoing president George W Bush to Democrat rising star Barack Obama as a backdrop to the skulduggery.
Television sets continuously spew out sound-bites from the two politicians.
“Each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will,” affirms Obama in one keynote address, which some of the characters take to heart and suffer the direst of consequences.
Dominik reunites with Brad Pitt to delve deep into the psyches of men who operate on the wrong side of the law, and he elicits a strong performance from his leading man.
Indeed, the entire ensemble cast is in excellent form, including James Gandolfini as a hit man who has allowed his penchant for booze and women to cloud his killing instinct.
It’s a deliciously dishevelled world away from his celebrated role as a New Jersey mob boss in The Sopranos.
Low-level crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) learns that mob man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) staged a robbery at one of his own card games in order to steal the pot.
So Amato hatches a cunning plan to rob another card game and point the finger of suspicion squarely at Markie.
He hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to pull off the heist, and he in turn foolishly recruits unreliable junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) as a second gun man.
Against the odds, Frankie and Russell manage to hold up the game card without accidentally shooting themselves or one of their hostages, and they make off with the booty.
Mob go-between Driver (Richard Jenkins) calls in hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to identify the perpetrators and make them pay.
Naturally, Markie is the prime suspect for the robbery but Jackie likes to be thorough and he searches for other likely candidates, hiring another assassin, Mickey (Gandolfini), to do the dirty work.
“I like to kill ‘em softly... from a distance,” Jackie explains to Driver.
When Russell’s drug-addled loose lips spill the beans about who really knocked off the card game, Jackie swiftly moves into action.
Killing Them Softly is punctuated with brilliantly orchestrated and stylish explosions of violence, including a breathtaking slow-motion car crash.
Unlike other film-makers who are in a hurry to get to the action set-pieces, Dominik allows conversations to breathe: veiled threats hang in the air, murderous glances are held uncomfortably long and every scene crackles with tension.
And we teeter nervously on the edge of our seats for the entire 97 minutes.
By Damon Smith