Words by Yazen Al Samen
Andrew Dominik’s 2007 western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was one of the most underrated films of that year, and it contained one of Brad Pitt’s best performances. The two of them return here of this modern adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 “Cogan’s Trade”, a bold, stylish, cold movie about a ring of criminals trying to symbolize America’s demise.
Brad Pitt is Jackie Cogan, a hit man hired by a “committee” of illegal gamblers to “investigate” a robbery that affected one of their rings. The suspect: Ray Liotta’s Markie Trattman, the guy who runs the gambling ring and holds the money. Other suspects include two-bit hoods Frankie (Scoot McNairy, from the excellent 2010 sci-fi indie ‘Monsters’), and Russell (the excellent Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn).
Other characters include Richard Jenkins’ unnamed character, as a contact for Jackie, giving him the orders the brass send, and James Gandolfini’s Mickey, a friend of Jackie who is enlisted in the “investigation” process.
The film is set in 2008, during the presidential election. Various scenes include TV-screens with Bush, Obama and McCain giving speeches. This underlines the film’s deeper themes, portraying a group of troubled criminals unsure of where to go. They are all greedy and unstable.
James Gandolfini’s character has a semi-nervous breakdown in a hotel room with a hooker, where he rants about his wife who wants to leave him. It’s all so pathetic and sad, Dominik manages to elevate it through smart dialogue, carefully calibrated scenes.
Brad Pitt’s performance and character to give an idea of American society in decline, and even remorse. We see plenty of money wasted, plenty of money stolen, and plenty of people not knowing what to do with money.
Jackie is the one who has it all figured out. He is cynical, direct and has little emotion, and the film ends with him delivering a small speech to Jenkins’ character about the “American dream”.
Dominik presents the movie with such calmness and simplicity that keeps the plot marching with intensity, while individual scenes help evolve the movie’s themes. In the end, he delivers an idea of America as a country of confusion, where people don’t know what they want or how to get it, a country of too many chances given, too much money spent and lost, whether it is within Goldman Sachs and Lehmann Brothers or in a small poker gambling ring. Most of the characters seem redeemable, and that what keeps the movie’s themes engaging and resonant.
You don’t have to agree with all of that, but like with any good movie, it is how good the material is presented that, not necessarily the material that determines how good a movie is. To think that Andrew Dominik was able to present all that social commentary through a small band of pathetic criminals is an achievement.