By Marty Mulrooney
Killing Them Softly is a crime film directed by Andrew Dominik, based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade. It stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a professional enforcer who is called in to investigate the heist of a high-stakes, mob-protected poker game in New Orleans. James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta co-star.
Killing Them Softly isn’t an action film – it’s a slow-paced drama that passes comment on crime, society and the American dream. Brad Pitt heads an impressive cast, but he doesn’t make an appearance until the story requires it. Instead, the opening chapter of the film focuses on small-time crooks Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) as they become roped into a heist put together by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola).
The poker game to be hit is watched over by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who is known to have previously robbed the card game himself. The thieves’ logic: Trattman will be blamed a second time and they will get off with the robbery scott free. The heist itself is a simple affair – Frankie and Russell wear stockings over their heads and marigolds on their hands as they burst into a room full of local gangsters. They wave guns in faces and grab all the money in the room. It’s a scene most cinemagoers will have seen some variation of before, but director Andrew Dominik films in a claustrophobic, taught style that makes you start to panic along with the robbers.
The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of the robbery – professional enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to clean up the mess. This is modern-day organised crime, where the shots are decided by committee – Driver (Richard Jenkins) is Cogan’s contact and everything must be ran past him first. The next course of action is decided almost clinically, with Cogan explaining what must be done to restore balance (no money will be made until the situation is under control), and Driver crunching the figures, checking with the higher-ups what is acceptable, what is affordable and what can realistically be given the go-ahead. Crime has become legitimised – crime is a business.
Liotta is fantastic in his supporting role as scapegoat Markie Trattman – who must pay regardless of guilt, because the talk on the street demands it – but the real showstopper here is James Gandolfini as Mickey. A fellow enforcer flown in to help Cogan at his request, Mickey turns out to be past his prime, a barely-functioning alcoholic who wears his demons upon his face for all to see. The low-key scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini are electric – it’s almost as if Cogan is catching a worrying glimpse of his own future. It doesn’t matter what profession in life you choose, life will grind you down.
Killing Them Softly won’t please everyone. The trailer hints at the punctuations of intense violence that are peppered throughout – one particular scene involving a slow motion drive-by shooting takes what could have been just a passing moment and makes it breathtakingly beautiful/borderline poetic – but what many won’t expect are the underlying messages that lurk beneath the surface of the picture and eventually rise up to beat the viewer repeatedly over the head.
The American financial meltdown of 2008 serves as the film’s backdrop, with George Bush and Barack Obama constantly shown slugging it out on television as the plot progresses towards its conclusion. It may seem heavy-handed at times, but it serves a purpose. Pitt’s closing lines hit hard and linger as the credits roll – it’s a powerful performance delivered by an actor in his prime. Is Killing Them Softly an attack on American politics, or on American society as a whole? It’s difficult to say. Only one thing remains certain – if crime itself becomes corrupted, there will be nothing else left to destroy.
8 OUT OF 10