A juicy, bloody, grimy and profane crime drama that amply satisfies as a deep-dish genre piece, Killing Them Softly rather insistently also wants to be something more
Writer-director Andrew Dominik, whose extraordinary Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford proved too long and arty for the masses, repositions George V. Higgins’ 1974 Boston mob-world novel as a metaphor for the ills of American capitalism circa 2008, a neatly provocative tact. But he also shamelessly shows off his directorial acumen; unlike the leading character, who’s all business, Dominik makes sure you notice all his moves. Killing Them Softly is tight, absorbing and entertainingly performed by a virtually all-male cast topped by Brad Pitt
A lawyer, professor and assistant U.S. Attorney who long investigated organized crime in addition to writing 27 novels, Higgins knew well of what he wrote. His first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was made into a fine film and his third, Cogan’s Trade, the basis of this one, consists of torrents of exceptionally vivid Beantown wiseguy dialogue with bits of plot tucked almost incidentally into the chatter
Moving the action to decimated post-Katrina New Orleans without a tourist in sight, Dominik has done a keen, disciplined job of coaxing the plot out of the shadows while retaining the flavour of underclass lingo and attitude
With campaign billboards for Obama and McCain looming in the background of a poverty ravaged neighborhood, the greasy, smelly Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) is three hours late meeting Frankie (Scoot McNairy doing a pretty spot-on Casey Affleck impression). It’s not a good start for the pair who are pitching themselves to Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) who’s got a job for them. There’s a protected high stakes poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) that they can hit and earn $30,000. It sounds dangerous, but here’s the beauty part: Markie once knocked off his own game, pocketed the money and later bragged about it (sounds like any corporations you know?). If his own game gets hit again, he’ll be the first suspect. And moreover, the higher ups won’t care about who actually did it, and will probably kill Markie anyway if only to send a message that if you mess with their business, there will be consequences
While allowing these low-enders to emerge in all their miserable glory, Dominik also adds his own flourishes right from the outset, from striking lateral camera moves to amusingly supplying one of the young hoods a pathetic little dog. Despite their general ineptitude, the boys pull off the job, and it’s time for retribution
And this becomes a core idea that Dominik continues to riff on — the disconnect between those who are responsible and those who have to hand out and live with the results of their actions. When Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) meets Richard Jenkins’ middleman to the bosses that protect the game, it’s blackly amusing that over the radio we hear John McCain suspending his campaign to deal with the financial crisis. While the government makes empty gestures, the everyday men on the ground don’t have the option to put their lives on hold. Hired to take out Markie and the men responsible for the heist, Jackie notes that he prefers not to kill people that he knows…they beg and plead for their lives. He prefers some distance from his clients, giving him the chance to “kill them softly.” Since Markie is a close friend, Jackie contracts out that job to Mickey (James Gandolfini), an East Coast hitman
From the first frame of the movie to the absolutely acidic closing line (hopefully no one will spoil it as it will be one of the ages and is best experienced cold), Killing Them Softly makes the metaphor to the current state of the economy loud and clear. Throughout the film, in the background on TVs and radios, Obama and McCain talk and pontificate and make promises to the country while everyone else is trying to survive. Frankie recounts early in the picture that he had initially looked at a straight job organized by his parole officer, but it was another town over, from 4-12 at night, for a paltry wage, and he had no way to get to there. When he brought up the latter point, he was told to buy a car. With what money? Later in the movie an associate that Jackie hires to drive for him for $500, tries to pocket a $1 tip off the table at a diner. Meanwhile, Jenkins’ middleman makes it clear that even the bosses up top are now scrutinizing the kind of expenditures they’re making on guys like Jackie
In a related way, some of the dialogue scenes, especially a couple of near-monologues superbly delivered by Gandolfini as a booze-guzzling, sex-obsessed, past-his-prime hit man, almost have the feel of brilliant, free-standing acting class scenes; they serve the film’s purposes, to be sure, but there’s a self-consciously showy aspect to them that makes you easily imagine students using them as audition pieces
Wickedly cynical and surging with furious anger, Killing Them Softly won’t be for everybody. As a straight up genre flick, it’s an anti-thriller — the actual hunt for Russell and Frankie is pretty much skipped over entirely, and solved with a couple lines of dialogue. And Gandolfini’s sad sack, beaten down Mickey is the clearest indication that Dominik has no interest in delivering your standard thriller about criminal low lives. That character’s brief arc goes in a direction that will initially leave many baffled, as he’s purely there as a symbol, not to serve the plot. And tie that all in to a bracing critique of the nation and a mostly actionless movie (though when it does come, it’s brutal and beautiful; one POV slo-mo sequence in particular is dazzling), Killing Them Softly is more brains than brawn
But it’s also breathtakingly brilliant and admirably ambitious. Certain to court controversy, Killing Them Softly captures in no uncertain terms the frustration and failed promises the American public as a whole have dealt with as well as the lack of accountability and inability to take difficult but needed action to right the ship. Is this the first economic/political gangster movie ever made? All we know is that we want to see it again to keep digging into this dense and penetrating film. Easily a contender for one of the best movies of the year, Killing Them Softly pulses and burns in a way few films ever do
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