Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly (2012) is a protest film masquerading as a crime movie. It’s an angry howl of discontent presented under the auspices of a Quentin Tarantino-esque tale of tough guys with guns only with much more depth and even more talking (if that’s possible). Despite receiving a warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Andrew Dominik’s film failed to make back its $15 million budget in North America and had to rely on international grosses to turn a profit. Clearly mainstream movie-going audiences were not interested in seeing an overtly talky crime film starring Brad Pitt. This is a shame because Killing Them Softly, while a bit heavy-handed in some spots, is quite brilliant.
The set-up is a simple one. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two small-time criminals, are hired to knock over a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The take is estimated to be the neighborhood of $40 – 50,000 and they can pin the blame on Markie as he knocked over the previous game. So, they figure he’ll take the blame again, get whacked and no one will be the wiser. The mob brings in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a fixer cum hitman that meets with his contact (Richard Jenkins) and is hired to find out who robbed the poker game and eliminate them. Jackie does indeed find out and brings in “New York Mickey” (James Gandolfini) to help him kill those responsible. This is all set against the backdrop of the American financial crisis and the presidential election campaign in 2008.
Frankie and Russell are real pieces of work. Frankie is an amicable sort of fellow and definitely the smarter of the two, but he’s young and inexperienced. Russell is a mouthy Australian who looks like a homeless junkie, but says he has some scam going involving stealing purebred dogs for money in order to get enough cash to move into drug dealing. Ben Mendelsohn seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy (1969) with a sweaty, disheveled look and chatty, foul-mouthed demeanor that has more than a whiff of desperation. The conversation between him and Frankie in a car en route to the robbery is Tarantino-esque in the sense that these guys are talking about inconsequential things, but it does inform their characters. They banter and bicker and are slightly inept, like how Russell brings rubber dishwashing gloves to the robbery, which is an amusing detail.
The actual robbery scene is thick with tension as we wonder if these two lunkheads are going to actually pull it off. Ray Liotta plays this scene so well as Markie calmly tries to convince Russell not to go through with deed. It’s heartbreaking to see a certain sense of resignation play over Markie’s face as he knows that he’s going to get blamed for the robbery. As a result you feel kind of bad for him as he’s not to blame, but will be because of his previous mistake.
The initial scene between Jackie and his contact is beautifully written and acted as we see the former cut through all the bullshit and find what the Mafia really wants him to do. Jackie is a logical, oddly compassionate, guy. Through the course of the conversation he’s told that the Mafia is no longer run by one guy, but by a committee with “total corporate mentality.” Again, the corporatization of America rears its ugly head as Dominik hammers the point home of the diluting of the Mafia, which is gradually destroying it, much to Jackie’s chagrin – definitely an old school kind of guy.
In all the conversations between Jackie and his contact, Pitt gets to deliver beautifully written monologues full of anger and humor. In the second one, Jackie explains his method of killing. To avoid having to deal with the messy emotions of victims pleading for their lives, he prefers to kill them from a distance or, as he puts it, “kill them softly.” In recent years, Pitt has gotten more comfortable in his own skin, with getting older and doing character roles like this one. He has also gotten better as an actor. He’s less mannered or, rather better at knowing when to be as he is able to slip into a role with more skill. Pitt looks more at ease immersed in a character, which comes from experience.
It is also fantastic to see Pitt sharing two scenes with the caliber of someone like James Gandolfini who plays Mickey as a cranky alcoholic capable of chugging a tall glass of beer like its water. He’s a bitter mess of a human being, lost in his own personal problems. The scene where Mickey and Jackie meet at a bar and talk about trivial things (in the sense that they don’t have anything to do with the main plot), like the former potentially going to prison for getting caught with a shotgun, is wonderful as we get to see two veteran actors share a scene together playing seasoned pros. Mickey talks about his disintegrating marriage while Jackie frets over the big man’s excessive drinking and wondering if he’ll be able to do his part. Gandolfini is playing a clearly unhappy man and this scene provides fascinating insight into Mickey’s sad life, which the actor conveys brilliantly here and even more so in another scene in a vanity-free performance.
Killing Them Softly came out of the anger Australian director Andrew Dominik felt about “how the whole world revolves around the dollar,” and seeing The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) on television. He was struck by how authentic a crime film it seemed and found out that it was based on a book written by George V. Higgins. He started reading the other man’s novels and one in particular, Cogan’s Trade, felt like it would make a good film. The economic crisis of 2008 was fresh in the director’s mind when he began adapting the novel. He realized that its story featured “an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling – and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation.” Dominik used the crime genre to comment on the economic crisis because he felt that these kinds of films were “about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only.”
He originally pitched the film to some financiers and was able to get it green-lighted. He sent Brad Pitt a copy of the book, but didn’t hear back from him because he was busy making Moneyball (2011). So, Dominik pursued another actor for the role, but reached out again to Pitt and made sure he wasn’t interested. The actor was and they hashed out a deal and found a window of opportunity in his busy schedule before the screenplay had even been written. The director was surprised that Pitt wanted to play the character of Jackie Cogan because, at the time, the actor had expressed an interest in playing the completely opposite kind of people.
The source material was very dialogue-heavy as was the eventual script. Dominik ended up looking at a lot of screwball comedies from the 1940s and they influenced the simple approach he took towards the dialogue scenes: “Just have the shot and let the actor do all the work.” The director was also influenced by the Albert and David Maysles documentary Salesman (1969), drawn to its grim tone and Midwest during the winter setting. As a result, the desolate landscape in the opening scene was Dominik’s idea of “America as Chernobyl.” Ultimately, he felt that the film’s message came down to “pointing its finger at the lie with which America was constructed – this idea that we’re all equal. Which clearly nobody believes.”
Killing Them Softly received mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “It all seems as if I’ve been seeing versions of this story since forever … All Killing Them Softly takes from the limitless universe of film noir is the night and the city.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “At times you might swear you’re looking at the film’s outtake reel, or a rehearsal video of infertile improvs. Despite enough pummeling to flatten Rocky Balboa in all six movies, the only thing that truly rewards your attendance is Pitt in another effortless star performance.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott felt that the film took place “entirely in a universe of tropes and archetypes, which is a polite way of saying clichés and pretensions.”
The Washington Post gave the film two out of our four stars and Ann Hornaday wrote, “Hope and change come in for their share of body blows in Killing Them Softly, but the film’s own jaundiced amorality ultimately feels just as devoid of meaning or genuine edge.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “There’s nothing touchy-feely about Killing Them Softly, a stylish thriller worth seeing – despite its relentless violence – for its sharp dialogue, mesmerizing photography and gritty performances.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey wrote, “In all the gritty confusion of the film, Pitt’s Jackie is the constant voice of reason. While his last big at-bat, Moneyball, was a far better movie, there is an effortlessness here in the way Pitt turns small scenes into defining moments.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Killing Them Softly is a blistering, at times, hypnotic minor movie that wraps itself in an importance it never earns. But there’s no doubt that it has made me an Andrew Dominik believer.”
Dominik makes a point of showing how hard hit economically the town where the story takes place is with the opening scene between Frankie and Russell, which occurs on the street in a run-down area populated by dilapidated and abandoned homes overrun with wild grass. It’s an image that contradicts Barack Obama’s message of hope that can be heard sampled at the beginning of the film. The then-presidential hopeful speaks optimistically of what he hopes America will become while Dominik shows us how it is. Throughout the film, we hear soundbites from Obama and then-President George Bush, who can be seen speaking on television about the economy in the background during the robbery scene. Dominik is more interested in what his characters do and say in between shoot-outs and beat-downs, and how what they do has been affected by the economic collapse.
Jackie is Dominik’s angry voice as the hitman rails against ineffectual bosses that don’t know what they’re doing and take too long making decisions. He keeps his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the streets while his employers are clearly out of touch. The bottom line is that Jackie is a professional who is good at what he does and expects to get paid well for it. This is best summed up at the end of Killing Them Softly when his employers try to short-change him for what he’s owed because of “recession prices.” An understandably upset Jackie lays it all out for the flunky when he tells him, “I’m livin’ in America and in America you’re on your own. America is not a country. It’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” Cut to black and cue “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong, which is a wonderful cheeky way to end the film. I’m sure people were not expecting a talky gangster film, but that’s what they got as Dominik delivered a brilliant, angry blast at what he perceived is wrong with the state of America.
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