By Simon Miraudo
October 9, 2012
Killing Them Softly is a caustic commentary on America’s chilly economic climate, and writer-director Andrew Dominik is unafraid of underlining that point repeatedly throughout his movie’s taut 97-minute runtime. The point is made, and then it’s made, and then it’s made again. But it builds to a brilliantly cutting monologue from mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, played by Brad Pitt, who spits out the final bit of vitriol from the picture’s poisonous container, and produces a legitimate contender for the all-time great film quotes. I won’t spoil those closing words here. Maybe in a few decades' time it will replace Gordon Gecko’s refrain of “Greed is good,” and you’ll be glad to have not heard it uttered or seen it in writing before enjoying it tumble out of Pitt’s lips.
On car radios and TVs everywhere, lame duck George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama are trying to keep their nation from exploding into panic. Set in the days following the 2008 election, this is not so much an allegory of the United States' financial collapse as it is a companion tale to highlight how muddled and messed up that whole kerfuffle really is. It’s also a crime thriller that makes the nihilistic No Country for Old Men seem positively chirpy. Jackie Cogan will murder anyone for the right price, and though he might feel cut-up about offing certain friendly acquaintances, a fair pay packet will quiet his guilt. He likes to kill softly, but he charges indiscriminately, and since he gets the job done every time out, he expects to be paid accordingly. It’s a blisteringly simple equation, and frankly, those handling the coffers in the U.S. could learn a lesson or two from his blunt dealings.
In a novel twist to the genre, Jackie Cogan is not on the run or seeking revenge of a personal nature. He’s called in to find the guys responsible for hitting a high stakes card game and making away with the winnings. Jackie informs his client, an out-of-his-depth counselor (Richard Jenkins) representing the robbed parties, that he’ll have to first take out the game's host. That’d be Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who once orchestrated a fake heist on his own operation to make a quick buck. Regardless of whether or not he’s guilty of the crime this time around, the gamblers have lost faith in him and refuse to return to the tables. Nobody’s making any money, and there'll be no progress until he’s been formally deposed. James Gandolfini turns up as a New York contractor fallen on hard times who accepts a discounted rate to whack Trattman for Jackie. The final episode of Gandolfini’s The Sopranos was called Made in America, and that feels like an apt alternate title for this (it's already undergone one name-change, based as it is on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade).
Back to the real culprits. The two thieves are naïve ex-con Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and sweaty Australian animal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). They know Markie will take the fall due to his past indiscretions, and live in a blissful bubble of ignorance until Jackie inevitably winds up on their tail. Frankie only wanted a nice new (old) car and a haircut. Russell, however, tries to double his loot by investing in some smack and becoming a low-level drug dealer. And in this universe, an enterprising spirit will cause fate to smile upon you, no matter how nefarious and despicable a person you might be. This feels like an appropriate juncture to state that every actor mentioned thus far is fabulous in their parts.
After detouring with his sublime elegy The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik finishes what he started with the darkly comic Aussie gangster flick Chopper. Spending the first third with Frankie and Russell as they plot their burglary and compare sexual conquests with graphic, depraved, freakishly witty detail feels like being transported back to Dominik's debut feature. He always had style, even when the purse strings were significantly tighter. Here, with a significantly bigger budget, he’s merely allowed to convey his cinematic talents with greater refinery. A slow-motion assassination is the technical money shot, though the nail-biting robbery is a mighty feat of camera movement and composition.
Brad Pitt puts down the nibbles for once and moves like a snake, or some sort of irresistible cloud of cool and callousness. He says he likes to kill his targets “softly,” so that he and they are spared the shame of tears, begging, and even self-soiling. Though he takes their lives from afar and without fanfare, “softly” feels like a generous description of how he works; double-triple-quadruple tapping the corpses to ensure that they stay dead. Hey, Jackie's getting paid good money to do this job, and he’ll be damned if he turns in subpar work. As a producer and star, Pitt must feel the same.
Killing Them Softly is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.