First Night: Killing Them Softly, Cannes Film Festival

Rambling, haphazard – but with characters to kill for

Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is a mobster thriller that takes a worm's eye view of its subject matter. The protagonists – including Brad Pitt's über-cynical enforcer Jackie Cogan – are brutish types who inhabit a world so sordid that it makes Goodfellas seem glamorous in the extreme.

Alongside the often stomach-churning violence, Dominik (who also wrote the screenplay) throws in plenty of macabre humour and even some political satire. The New Zealand-born director (best known for Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) seems to be suggesting that there is nothing so unusual about his gallery of gimlet-eyed psychopaths. They're just typical Americans trying to stay afloat in a dog-eat-dog society. There is no sentiment here at all. Men murder, rob and beat up one another for pragmatic reasons, to keep face and ensure survival. At times, you begin to suspect that Dominik wants to tell us that mobsters and George W Bush-era bankers are cut from the same cloth.

There was outrage in Cannes this week that some Canadian journalists were being asked by a distribution company to pay for their interviews with Brad Pitt. The American actor remains a symbol of modern Hollywood glamour, but to his credit, Pitt has been branching out in ever more interesting ways. Last year, he was in Cannes as an authoritarian small town Texan patriarch in Tree Of Life. Now, he is back as a killer who approaches his grisly trade as if he is a jobbing utilities contractor.

The storytelling here is rambling and haphazard. The structure is almost as chaotic as the plans hatched by the hapless petty thieves who rob a mobster poker game with sawn-off shotguns – and then have contracts taken out on their lives. The real glory of the film lies in the characterisation. James Gandolfini is in vintage form as an overweight, martini-quaffing assassin from out of town who is beginning to lose his touch. Ray Liotta offers a grotesque reprise of the type of manic gangster he played in his younger years in Goodfellas. Richard Jenkins is solemn as ever as the killer's contact, relaying back messages from the Mob and trying to beat Cogan down on prices.

Dominik alternates between dialogue-heavy scenes in which we see the sweaty faces of the protagonists in oppressive close-up and more stylised sequences. There are chases with staccato editing as well as weird visual effects as one hoodlum trips on drugs. All the men here are relentlessly sexist and foul-mouthed. Women are conspicuous by their absence. Some moments are clunky and repetitive. However, in its own miasmatic way, the film is arresting and original.

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