KILLING THEM SOFTLY– 4 STARS
You know, I don’t have a cleaner or nicer way of making this starting point. Criminals are f–k-ups, plain and simple. If they were smart, they would be something else for a living. If they were successful, they would be somewhere else other than dirty streets, dive bars, and s–thole homes. If they were wise, they would keep better friends. I’ll grant that it takes a different kind of savvy, circumstance, heart, skill, loyalty, and mindset to be a criminal. Like any other group, they are their own special breed. We like to think that they are noble men pushed to doing bad things to redeem themselves. You’re giving them too much credit. Even in the greatest and coolest crime or mob movies, from the charmers like Jack Foley in Out of Sight all the way up the ladder to the powerful Corleone family in The Godfather trilogy, you’re still watching f–k-ups. Movies can romanticize them all they want with noble codes, anti-hero character traits, and Robin Hood ideals. They’re still f–k-ups.
Killing Them Softly, the new film from writer-director Andrew Dominik and starring the studly four-time Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt, internalizes the subject of criminal f–k-ups and puts them on display for us to enjoy. With a sharp and brutal edge of discourse and humor, Killing Them Softly is an very good crime film that trades action for conversation. It screened in competition out at the Cannes Film Festival in France back in May and is now making its domestic debut. Fashioned a little bit like a chatterbox Quentin Tarantino crime film like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, Dominik’s film keeps its course when showcasing the criminal lifestyle being displayed. It embraces the despairing flaws that drive them and leaves most of the fake coolness at the door.
As we enter our story set during the fall of 2008 in New Orleans, the window dressing of a mob movie is still here in Killing Them Softly. The late model cars, slicked back hair, ugly suits without ties, derogatory Italian terminology, leather jackets, hued sunglasses, and a constant cloud of exhaled cigarette smoke are everywhere to be seen, just as you might expect. However, the pulse of this setting is driven by the history of that year and season. Through ever-present imagery, intrusive car radio audio, and background television broadcasts, this movie is periodically narrated by the news of failing banks, Wall Street collapse, Republican opposition, and the hope and change of the winning Democratic President. In a mob movie such as this, our characters are acidic and cynical to these new tough economic times and refuse to cater to changes in business. This stark and ballsy setting and stance is, without a doubt, one of the strongest elements of the film.
The plot follows various levels of those aforementioned f–k-ups. At the absolute bottom rung of the ladder are a pair of released criminals, the well-intentioned but lonely Frankie (Scoot McNairy of Argo) and his junkie trainwreck of a friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn of The Dark Knight Rises). They are talked into a job by local crime wannabe Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola from The Sopranos) to hold up and rob a mob poker game run by made man Markie Trattman (Goodfellas star Ray Liotta). Since Markie admitted to robbing his own poker game the same way a few years back, Johnny thinks all the the blame will travel right back to Markie, leaving him and his boys clean and set.
When the heist goes down, the mafia higher ups are alerted afterwards that the game has now been hit twice. They just can’t stand for that to become a regular precedence or occurrence. To deal with the situation and find those responsible, they send their unnamed spokesman (Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins) to seek out Jackie Cogan (Pitt). With a nearly WWE-esque entrance music of “When the Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash, we meet this ultra-focused and driven mob hitman and enforcer whose specialty is cleaning up messes and loose ends. The rub is that, due to the shifting economy, business isn’t going to go as easy (or as profitable) as it used to. Nevertheless, once Jackie gets involved, people are going to die and Killing Them Softly becomes that process and pursuit.
The lead performance from Brad Pitt is the reason to buy your ticket to Andrew Dominik’s film. Brad Pitt extends his legend of cool and screen presence with this razor-sharp character of tough talk and tough actions to back it up. As the least f–ked up of the f–k-ups, Jackie’s still willing to get his hands dirty while still cynically discussing the brutality and emotion of his work. To me, this is the polar opposite to his cop in Se7en from 15 years ago. That cop character was a young, short fuse of nobility and harsh reaction where this hitman in Killing Them Softly is a slow burn of experience, focus, and analysis. He’s an absolute blast to watch.
After Pitt, things digress a little. The flawed gangsters are all fine, between a brief Sam Shepard appearance and the cross-hairs on Ray Liotta. Our bumbling burglars of McNairy and Mendelsohn give us great banter and point-of-view. Mendelsohn nearly steals the show as the messy junkie. The weakest link is James Gandolfini who plays one of Jackie’s former partners that is brought in to help with the job. With his own billiards rack of clanking issues, I found that the movie nearly grinds to a halt when he’s around in two long scenes. While those portions of the story help give us some insight and initiative towards Jackie, they take away from the real pursuit. I would have rather had more Richard Jenkins, whose pencil-neck mafia messenger was a better foil for conversation with Pitt.
Still, I have to give Andrew Dominik compliments for a couple of things. One, he re-teamed with Brad Pitt after the under-seen and under-appreciated 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and bounced back with the gritty stuff (go see his Australian film Chopper with Eric Bana’s star-making lead performance) that got him noticed by Hollywood in the first place. Two, he put together an excellent, pulpy, and atmospheric crime film with highly interesting and unique characters that broke through the usual mob movie stereotypes. Three, he adapted the 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins and gave it gut-punching dialogue worth listening to. Four, he made the dated material more modern and topical with the 2008 financial crisis backdrop. Finally, he hired a better editor, resisted endless conversation, and delivered a movie that was half as long (97 minutes) as the sometimes-anguishing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (160 minutes) and one with a title made of one-third the number of words.
LESSON #1: THE CHANGING AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, CIRCA 2008— There’s no doubt that America was in a terrifically scary flux four years ago. With banks closing, businesses failing, huge unemployment, and belts tightening everywhere, 2008 was the beginning of some really hard times that we haven’t climbed out of to this day. Killing Them Softly uniquely gives us the mob lens to that time period. Remember, the Mafia is a multi-million dollar corporation too. Even they took their hits. For more on that, continue to Lesson #2.
LESSON #2: “AMERICA’S NOT A COUNTRY, IT’S A BUSINESS”— Brad Pitt’s cynical Jackie Cogan remembers when business was different before the whole country got sideswiped by a depression. The Jackie character constantly compares the past to the present and knows that for not just him to survive, but the bigger picture as well, business has to continue. This quote and lesson is his reaction to observing the 2008 election happening before his eyes. Even through the perspective of the criminal, the notion rings true. As long as money is at stake, criminally or legally, there will always be business to be had in this country.
LESSON #3: WHEN F–K-UPS F–K UP— To bring it all back to the central theme we’ve been going with, we witness crime and its internal consequences in Killing Them Softly. We see two bottom-level guys pull of a job that sets them up, but fails to springboard them away from trouble. We see the mid-level guys lie, cheat, and steal from each other just to get ahead while never really getting ahead. Finally, we see how that system is governed and how a guy like Jackie can be either the wrench in wheel or WD40 to keep the wheel moving.