In a year that has been one of the best in terms of cinema, particularly fall releases, Killing Them Softly may be one of 2012’s best surprises. Here is a crime drama that imbues a 1970s aesthetic to our current times. It is gritty with trash-strewn locales. Unglamorous with unscrupulous characters. This isn’t Marlon Brando going to make you an offer you can’t refuse. This is Richard Jenkins playing middleman, passing along messages as if today’s mob resembled a middle-school classroom.
The story is set in an impoverished Boston neighborhood that Ben Affleck probably considered for Gone Baby Gone or The Town but felt was too rough. Just the sight of trash and standing water in puddles is enough to warrant a tetanus shot. The time period is 2008 after the Wall Street financial collapse and Barack Obama’s election.
When George V. Higgins published the novel Cogan’s Trade, for which KTS is based, in 1974 he probably never envisioned that a filmmaker would take his ’70s novel and contemporize the story. But while writer-director Andrew Dominik may change the period the crime thriller still feels from that era because of the production design and how characters interact. The automobiles driven are older and show some wear, and the interior bar scenes look no different than a ‘70s dive, minus cable television. Dialogue-heavy conversations happen in person (not on cellphones).
Those looking for a fast-paced crime story filled with shootouts and violence may be disappointed with Killing Them Softly. The pacing is slow but deliberate. The film may be ninety-seven minutes long, but the brevity of the dialogue makes it seem longer. That’s not a disservice to the film; actually, the dialogue is one of KTS’s strongest attributes. The subject of the conversations are filled with guttural language, but also filled with black humor to lighten the grim mood. As for violence, there is some, including one of the best-staged “beat ’em to a pulp” moments. Big credit goes to the foley artists and their emphasis of each knuckle crack and body shot. The beating is extreme to the point that you may be forced to look away. Ironic that flesh on flesh violence would make some squeamish as opposed to a hit that takes place some scenes later. Slo-mo and in the rain, Dominik films the killing in balletic fashion. Almost like Cirque Du Soleli if the performers were carrying firearms.
At the onset we are introduced to Frankie (Scoot McNairy), an amateur thug who gets wrapped up in a robbery masterminded by dry cleaner-cum-wiseguy “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola). Needing a second guy for the robbery, Frankie offers his friend Russell (Ben Mendelshohn), a grungy-clothed, oily-skinned Aussie who looks like he fell asleep in a dumpster. The two hit a poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a low-level guy who once bragged about setting up a robbery for one of his old poker games. Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mouthpiece for those who run the local mob, calls in hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to settle the matter. Jackie is methodical in his means of determining the punishment that needs to be exacted, but he is by no means pleased that his moves have to go up the flagpole for consensus approval. So when Jackie incorporates another assassin (James Gandolfini) to assist with the job, the decision proves reckless.
Much like the opening scene to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs we see how criminals interact when they aren’t doing a job. Robbery like murder-for-hire (in the case of Killing Them Softly) is treated as such: a job. There’s no silver lining or brass ring to strive for. It’s just a career opportunity, albeit for those that suck on the teet of society’s underbelly. Being a hit man is no different than being a garbage collector. Trash is always involved.
Jackie is as cynical as they come. He sees the writing on the wall and his pocketbook is suffering because of it. Because of the economic malaise, he is forced into accepting a lower fee for his latest murder-for-hire assignment. Bob Dylan was right: “Times, they are a-changin’.” In what is arguably the best closing scene in a film this year, Jackie makes his point known about all the “hope and change” rhetoric sold to Americans.
The Godfather and its follow-up may be the epitome of the gangster picture and certifiable classics, but I have always been more fascinated in the demythifying nature of mob life. What Martin Scorsese showed with Goodfellas and David Chase continued with The Sopranos continues again with Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. Maybe it’s seeing their fall from grace and how the golden goose of opulence has tarnished.
Brad Pitt, who has been turning out one strong performance after another like clockwork, again delivers as Jackie. Pitt is equal parts charming and deadly. When he offers advice on what to do with Markie, he is in favor of putting him out of his misery with a bullet minus the roughhousing beforehand. No pussyfooting around. If you are going to killing him anyway, why should a thug’s knuckles suffer?
James Gandolfini, who is no stranger playing hit men having done so in The Juror, The Mexican and most memorably in True Romance, plays Jackie’s friend Mickey. Most will find him loathsome, playing a hit man who has lost his edge and is now drowning his sorrows with alcohol and prostitutes. His part has no overreaching story arc and seems to act more as a reminder to Pitt’s character. If you stay in this profession long enough this is likely to become of you. Richard Jenkins plays the mob’s press secretary as it is expected of him, and Ray Liotta is rather adjusted in his role, as if his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas got tired of Witness Protection and decided to visit Boston.
Wickedly cynical, Dominik makes sure to incorporate strong music cues (Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” plays as Jackie is introduced) and excerpts from political discourse throughout the film in the background on TVs and radio. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are making promises while the country still suffers. Scoot McNairy’s character is the picture of desperation. At one point he tells his story of trying to get a job that was organized by his parole officer. The job, its location and working hours, as compared to his living arrangements and lack of transportation, made it impossible to get there. He may be a criminal, but his struggles to make ends meet shows that when pushed to the limit we do anything as a means to survive. Not helping his situation is having a junkie for a friend in Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelshohn. Mendelshohn’s character and his appearance make you grateful the film wasn’t presented in Smell-O-Vision.
Killing Them Softly likely won’t be enjoyed by most. It’s an anti-gangster movie much like Dominik’s last film, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, was an anti-western. He incorporates a real-world problem and applies it to the criminal underworld. If you want a straight-up crime-thriller then avoid KTS. This is a film for those who like heaping servings of dialogue and conversations. Basically, if you know the works of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Rum Punch – aka Tarantino’s Jackie Brown) then KTS is the film for you.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik, based on Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins
Notable Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta