By Linc Leifeste | November 29, 2012
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik (screenplay), George V. Higgins (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola
Killing Them Softly kicks off in a disorienting fashion, the camera tracing the steps of a disheveled delinquent wandering through a trash-strewn neighborhood of burned-out buildings to the soundtrack of candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 DNC speech, the sound and image repeatedly and jarringly interrupted by jumps to title cards and credits, until he winds up standing under side-by-side McCain and Obama presidential campaign billboards. The unsubtle opening sequence sets things up rather nicely, letting the viewer know that the setting is 2008, in the midst of the Presidential campaign and a crashing economy, and that this film is going to be more than just the darkly comedic crime thriller promised by the trailer.
In some ways Killing Them Softly, adapted from George V. Higgins’s 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, but bolstered by the heavy-handed political and philosophical ruminations of New Zealand–born director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik, feels almost like two movies stitched together. The gritty, violent, stripped-down crime drama that springs from Higgins’ pen is masterfully executed, initially darkly amusing before becoming shockingly violent, on par with the 1973 film adaptation of Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. As for Dominik’s heavy handed moralizing about the nature of America, forcefully and repeatedly interjected throughout Higgins’ story via seemingly omnipresent TV or radio newscasts regarding the fall 2008 Wall Street bailout, it helps that I tend to share his cynicism and skepticism about American exceptionalism. That said, I’m not sure the message is aided by being delivered like a hammer to the head.
The film opens with baby-faced two-bit criminal, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his wise-cracking junkie accomplice, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), being pitched a robbery idea by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola). It seems there’s a lucrative mob-run card game that Amato figures is ripe for a robbery. The game was held up years earlier by the criminal that runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). After managing to get away with it for years, Trattman has recently gloatingly let it slip to his buddies that he was behind the job. Amato figures that the game can now be hit again and the assumption will be that it’s a repeat job by Trattman; he’ll be bumped off and that will be that. But these are not rocket scientists and things don’t go exactly according to plan.
The robbery itself is one of the film’s many moments of cinematic perfection, a superbly acted blend of comedy, tension, and fear. Stockings mildly obscure the two men’s facial features but there’s no hiding the fear behind their sharply barked orders. The tougher and more seasoned men gathered around the poker tables reluctantly follow orders while they constantly look for any opening to resist. And there’s a clear sense that Markie knows his fate hangs in the balance as he does his best to convince Russell to change his mind, warning him that he’s surely a dead man if he doesn’t. It’s as well crafted and acted a robbery scene as you’ll ever see on the big screen, except for the inclusion of a TV in the room blaring President Bush’s explanation the need for a government bailout. Mr. Higgins, meet Mr. Dominik.
Act two introduces us to hired enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), brought in by an unnamed mob bureaucratic broker (Richard Jenkins) to enforce justice for the robbery and restore confidence to the Mob-run underground gambling economy. Pitt needs nothing more than his charismatic presence, with his goatee, slicked back hair, and black clothing, to immediately light up the screen, but the heavy-handed nature of his introduction highlights another aspect of the film I have reservations about. He strides onto the stylized screen to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” with lyrics such as “There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names, and he decides who to free and who to blame.” Subtle it is not, looking every bit a bad-ass music video, but I’ll admit that it worked for me; I love the song, I love the look, I love the actor. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is masterful throughout but at times the film feels too stylized, especially during some of the more graphic scenes of intense violence. Fortunately, there is substance to go along with the style.
It’s not long before Cogan has pieced together who is behind the robbery and gets busy doling out punishment. Of course he’s not an independent agent so everything has to be run through the middle-man. In a film filled with great dialogue, Jenkins and Pitt share some of the sharpest, with Jenkins sounding as dry as a mid-level bank manager while discussing plans for contract killings. It turns out that Cogan knows one of the criminals and he doesn’t like to get involved with the messy business of murdering acquaintances so he insists on bringing in an out-of-town hitman, Mickey (James Gandolfini).
Gandolfini is exceptional as a pathetic sad-sack mobster, on the verge of making a return trip to the pen and facing the loss of his marriage as a result, all booze and prostitutes and rambling reminisces about the past. Speaking of prostitutes, the only screen time any woman gets is when a prostitute gives verbally as good as she gets after servicing Mickey. For better or worse, this is an intensely violent film written by, directed by and geared towards men, filled with characters who have no use for nor thoughts of women other than as momentary objects of sexual longing. There is money to be made and business to transact.
Higgins’s story, at its heart, is about the power structure and those poor souls who exist to feed it and what happens to them when they overstep their bounds but Dominik wants to drive home to the viewer that there is no real difference between the operating principles of the American government and organized crime. Now and forever, it’s all been business, money calling the shots. At least on first viewing, I’m not sure that the story and the moral don’t compete with, rather than complement, one another. In those moments when the two do jell its a beautiful thing. When discussing bringing in Mickey to do a hit, Jenkins balks at the added expense, knowing that it will be tough to get approval from his mob bosses with their modern corporate mindset, leading Cogan to utter one of the classic lines of the film (and the best possible blending of Higgins and Dominik): “This country is fucked.” Just as it began, the film ends with Barack Obama speaking, this time giving his post-election victory speech. Cogan answers the President’s rhetoric of hope and unity with the cynical reply that in America, the reality is that it’s every man for himself.