Set in a dilapidated New Orleans during the 2008 Presidential campaign; low rent criminal Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a back-room card game run by Markie Traftman (Ray Liotta). Markie is known to have staged a robbery on one of his past games, so the assumption is that he’ll take the fall. Mob boss, Dillon (Sam Shepard) sends hit-man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort out the mess.
Cogan meets with local mob representative Driver (Richard Jenkins) to discuss details and fees for the job. As Cogan is known to Amato, he brings in fellow hit-man Mickey (James Gandolfini) to take him out; Cogan will take out Frankie and Russell.
It’s a simple premise; however this film is anything but, it’s a dark, cynical, violent and blackly humorous tale. Australian director Andrew Dominik focuses on character, giving each of his cast room to breathe, and they reward him with uniformly excellent performances.
Pitt featured in Dominik’s previous film, the beautiful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), one of my favourite films of the last decade. Ray Liotta is better than he’s been in years, Richard Jenkins and Ben Mendelsohn good, James Gandolfini is excellent as the wounded, self-pitying hit-man, drowning his pain in alcohol and prostitutes, his profane speeches about his sexual prowess and broken marriage are both heartbreaking and sad. However, Scoot McNairy steals every scene he’s in; he’s wonderful as the nervous, twitchy Frankie, his miss-placed optimism at odds with his constant agitation at his friends and situation.
For all the talk, and there’s a lot of fantastic dialogue, this is a very violent film. Ray Liotta is subjected to a brutal beating that is as far removed from glamorised violence as it can get, at odds with the stylised, super slo-mo shooting that follows, almost fetishistic gun porn.
The script, written by Dominik, is based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by the late crime author George V. Higgins. I haven’t read it, however, in updating the action from the 70’s to coincide with the final days of Obama’s race for the presidency is not lost on the audience. Obama’s speeches of hope and the potential of the United States are at odds with the story unfolding on screen, the economic collapse, the miserable fate of the underclass and the repetitive cycle of behaviour which keeps them there, there is no hope for these characters. Not exactly subtle delivery, Dominik ensures we get the message.
The film is shot in grimy, washed out tones, almost monochrome noir in a desolate, rain drenched New Orleans, as bleak and unwelcoming as the nameless city in David Fincher’s SE7EN.
This is muscular film-making; not for the faint hearted, but well worth a look, especially if you like your crime dramas of the hard-boiled variety.
Any Good: ****