The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of my favourite films of 2007 so when I heard that director and star Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt were re-teaming I was in. The original crime novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins was first published in 1974, the film has been updated to the modern day and is set against a backdrop of the financial crisis and the transition from Bush to Obama.
A low level mobster (Vincent Curatola) hires Frankie and Russell, a pair of small time crooks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to hold up a mob run card game. As planned initial suspicion falls on Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who is know to have previously staged a hold up. In an effort to restore order, mob enforcer/hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is sent in to clear things up.
On first viewing the dialogue may sound like Tarantino without his vigour or humour (there is comedy but it is very dark). The music, especially during the slow-motion killings could be seen as a rip-off of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The television reports of the 2008 election and financial crisis seem heavy-handed. But there is far more to it. With all the glamour and romanticism stripped from the genre we are left with a downbeat tale that is a perfect metaphor for the time. At the centre of the story is Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, a hitman who despite being good at what he does has a problem. He is hates it when his victims beg for mercy and is especially squeamish about killing people he has previously met. This is where fellow hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini) comes in, his problems provides both prospective and comic relief. Richard Jenkins plays a mob equivalent of middle management, a sort of buffer between Pitt and unseen bosses. They talk about their inability to make a decision and how in finding a solution what is seen to be done is more important than what is actually done,. Cogan’s goal isn’t revenge, it is getting the poker games back in operation, it is returning to the status quo. This is when I suddenly realise the whole movie is a metaphor and as such couldn’t help watching it differently. The other stark thing about this movie is the lack of woman. The most notable female character is a prostitute who appears in one scene, but this is a man’s world, a world of low rent, low life crooks.
With a runtime of just 97 minutes the movie is short by modern standards, but is perfect for the genre movie it is on the surface. If reports that the first cut was double the length are true it shows the maturity of Andrew Dominik as a filmmaker. With his previous movie clocking in at 160 minutes, it would have been easy to do the same again, that would have been a mistake.
An effective and affecting crime movie, the social and political commentary have earned the movie its greatest praise and largest criticism. An interesting movie on one level and an enjoyable one on another, it isn’t for everyone and those who don‘t like it will really hate it. Give it a chance, I can’t guarantee you will like it but its worth the risk and even if you don’t like it Brad Pitt’s great performance is fantastic.