With the American summer blockbuster season behind us, the coming months will see the majority of the year's 'prestige' pictures released in theatres in the build-up to the Oscars in March.
Certain titles are already generating the right kind of buzz - Ben Affleck's Argo, David O Russell's The Silver Linings Playbook, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln - but there's one film (released in New Zealand cinemas today) that is getting generally good notices, but not a lot of overall attention, and it's freaking awesome.
New Zealand-born Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik declared himself a filmmaker of note when his first film, Chopper, was released in 2000. He followed that up with 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James, a lyrical wonder that gave Brad Pitt his juiciest role outside of Fight Club.
Dominik has reteamed with Pitt for his new film, the crime drama Killing Them Softly. And holy stuff if it isn't one of the coolest American crime dramas I've ever seen. Despite feeling like a very modern film, it trades in the kind of lowdown artful grit that lent the best American films of the 1970s their authenticity.
Based upon the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins, Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a medium level enforcer who is tasked with investigating when a mob-protected poker game is robbed at gun point in New Orleans.
But Pitt doesn't even appear on screen until almost a third of the way through the film. For the first 30 minutes or so, we follow Frankie and Russell, two degenerates who "plan" and execute the heist, thus necessitating Cogan's involvement.
As ably demonstrated by Jesse James, Dominik has a gift for casting, and that's in full effect in Killing Them Softly. Frankie and Russell are played by Scoot McNairy - the intense indie actor from 2009's Monsters who plays a significant supporting role in Argo - and Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who's also enjoying a pretty good 2012 with a supporting role in The Dark Knight Rises.
McNairy is amusingly scuzzy, but it's a real showcase role for Mendelsohn, who deserves Oscar attention for his amazingly convincing performance as a scummy low-rent junkie ambling for a big score.
Despite a long and illustrious career in Australian film and television (he was in The Henderson Kids!) Mendelsohn's only really been on Hollywood's radar since his chilling breakout role in 2009's Animal Kingdom, which appears to have done wonders for the careers of all of its cast. Mendelsohn's sickly, conniving presence in Killing Them Softly is a step beyond his work even in that film, and under Dominik's direction he has created an instantly iconic movie scumbag.
So I was already completely onboard with the film by the time Pitt's Cogan turned up, but he's fantastic as well - Dominik really seems to be able to bring the best out of Pitt, who even in his best performances often can't help reminding the audience that he's Brad Pitt via his recognisable tics and vocal affectations. Not so here. He's all business in a badass leather jacket.
The year 2008 - when this film is set - doesn't seem that long ago, but Dominik manages to make Killing Them Softly feel like a period piece. Barely a scene goes by that doesn't feature or reference some aspect of the 2008 Presidential campaign. It's not exactly subtle, and this seems to be the main complaint among the film's detractors - that the political metaphors are laid on too thick.
I thought it worked though. The film is about modern America, and nothing about modern America is subtle. Dominik comments explicitly on the financial meltdown and bail-out, and his analogy is apt: Who better to represent everyone involved than a bunch of gambling crooks grasping at piles of cash?
Many critics cited the influence of acclaimed director Terrence Malick's lyrical style in The Assassination of Jesse James. That influence is present in Killing Them Softly, but it's under a layer of grit and grime which only adds to the proceedings. And at 97 minutes, this is not a film that outstays its welcome. It's like a swift punch to the gut that aches for weeks.
After toiling for years in straight-to-DVD films, Ray Liotta is gifted his best role in ages as the organiser of the doomed poker game, and gets to demonstrate just how underutilised he has become in the process. He is fantastic. So is the great Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Six Feet Under) as Pitt's contact.
Looking beyond Mendelsohn's showy performance, James Gandolfini is devastating in a different way as an associate of Pitt's who comes to assist, but ends up just sitting around in his hotel room getting boozed and sending out for prostitutes. There's plenty of existing evidence for Gandolfini's acting genius, but he still manages to impress greatly as an angry, tired, rotten man raging against the world. His metaphorical connotations are boundless.
Killing Them Softly is as much a subversion of crime movie tropes as No Country For Old Men was, and the (admittedly clearly stated) thematic underpinnings lend it dramatic heft. It's a bold American drama that deserves to be called a modern masterpiece. I mean, just look at this poster.
* Seen Killing Them Softly? Like? Dislike? Amped to see it? Comment below!
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