“A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.”
This quote, from founding father Benjamin Franklin, doesn’t appear anywhere in Killing Them Softly, but I think it sums up the movie fairly succinctly.
From all outward appearances and marketing, Killing Them Softly is yet another entry in the never out of style gangster genre, a genre which is one of the most well-established perennials of American cinema. Don’t fool yourself though, this film ain’t Heat. It’s not Donnie Brasco either, or The Untouchables, or even Goodfellas. In terms of accessibility, Killing Them Softly is a much pricklier pear than these relatively straightforward films.
By way of plot, there is very little. Not much actually happens in the movie when you break it down step by step (which may partly be due to its brisk run time of 97 minutes). There’s a lot of dialogue, all superbly written and acted, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to any plot revelations or narrative expansion. Instead, what we get from all this conversational back and forth is mostly tangential chatter, tangential chatter which is used in service of the film’s true goal: an allegory on the current state of the good ol’ US of A.
Based on the book Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, writer/director Andrew Dominik makes his intentions very clear by geographically and temporally transporting the story of the novel from 1970’s Boston to 2008 post-Katrina New Orleans, right in the midst of the 2008 financial collapse and the election of “hope and change”.
Despite these calculated alterations though, the film does still borrow the book’s premise: a group of neanderthal low-lifes get the bright idea to stick up a mob-backed poker game. It’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, because the would-be criminals have good reason to believe the mafia will suspect the guy in charge of running the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), of pulling off the heist himself, leaving them in the clear. As you can imagine, things don’t quite work out this way.
The story is heavily accompanied by the political happenings of time. The film opens with one of its main characters walking through a grimy urban tunnel. As we watch this, auditorily we are treated to the soaring platitudinal rhetoric of a pre-presidential Obama campaign speech. His words though are not allowed to flow unencumbered, but are instead broken up rather harshly by a synthy moaning and droning that conjures up the sort of deeply pessimistic muckiness of Arthur Schopenhauer. The dissonance is deafening and the message is clear.
This is not an isolated incident either. Wherever these characters go, we are bombarded with political speeches and announcements about the election and the ever-present financial crisis and proceeding bailout. President Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama are given speaking time that practically rivals that of characters in the movie. Given the fact that these rough-around-the-edges blue-collar criminals would be unlikely political junkies, the constant inclusion of political prattle is a none-too-subtle hint at the story’s parallelism with the country’s current economic catastrophe. (I doubt there ever has been, or will be, a mob-backed poker game with CSPAN running on the TV, no matter how bad of an economic crisis).
Despite my usual reservations about films that stoop to using such overt political overtures, in this case, I actually think it works, to a degree. A film like The Godfather, for instance, is essentially able to deliver a similar message, but without once resorting to bringing in “real-life” figures, instead containing itself within its own dramatic universe. The result is a much more organic, and therefore, powerful punch that the blunt messaging of Killing Them Softly doesn’t come near to approaching. Given the acidic, acerbic nature of this movie though, the inclusions make sense, to a point. I just wish they turned down the volume on it by a few levels.
While the badgering of political punditry is undeniably overcooked, what does work brilliantly in the film is the more general cultural allegory of the inescapable permeation of soft-pedaling corporatism. After the robbery goes off surprisingly well, the mafia bosses hire out contract killer/investigator Jackie (Brad Pitt) to take care of the situation, but these aren’t your father’s mafia bosses. In fact, we don’t see them at all. Instead, they remain to the audience and Jackie a group of shadowy figures, like a board of directors, who use a liaison, Richard Jenkins (simply listed as “Driver” in the film’s credits), to do all their negotiating with Jackie.
There are multiple scenes, almost always in a car, of Pitt and Jenkins,who is dressed in suit and tie without fail, discussing the current situation and the best way to proceed. In these astutely written scenes (some of my favorite scenes of any movie this year), we get a good understanding of the wishy-washy, milquetoasty nature of the people actually in charge. They’re still the same greedy bastards they have always been, but much more queasy about it than before. This leads to a lack of clarity in vision that, as clearly illustrated in the case of Liotta’s Markie Trattman (and much to the chagrin of the clear-minded Jackie), ends up hurting people more than helping them.
I hate to be the critic that brings out the word zeitgeist, but along with David Croenberg’s Cosmopolis from earlier this year, these films certainly do have their finger on the pulse of the culture. In this manner, Killing Them Softly is actually quite reminiscent of the HBO series The Wire. It doesn’t have quite the level of humor that was a trademark of cult HBO series, but in both cases, we get to see on full display the ineptitude of the bureaucratic system.
You’ve got the naive, dim-witted kids at the bottom trying to concoct some “get rich quick” scheme in order to make it to Easy Street. You’ve got the slightly less insipid people on top, bumbling their way through with just enough confidence to maintain their positions of power. And then, you have all the level-headed analytical thinkers, the people who see things as they really are, essentially working as middle-men in helping the people on top screw the people on the bottom, leading these intelligent people to either: a). See the world through jaded eyes or, b). become totally exhausted and burned out, as is the case with the fascinating vignette involving James Gandolfini‘s character Mickey.
Of course all of this theoretical mumbo jumbo is all for nothing if it were not for some excellent performances to bring these characters to life. Brad Pitt, who seems to be a perpetually improving actor, is stunning in his role as the abrasively astute Jackie. Pitt, unfortunately, does not seem to be picking up any awards traction thus far in this Oscar season, and that’s a shame, because he definitely deserves it. Even if you’re not crazy about the film, I would hope you could recognize the high quality of work Pitt is turning in here, but at this point in his career this sort of performance may just be expected of him by some people.
The rest of the cast is terrific as well. From seasoned vets such as the aforementioned Jenkins, Liotta, and Gandolfini, to relative newcomers such as the Aussie Ben Mendelsohn and especially Scoot McNairy (who seems to be channeling Casey Affleck), it’s all uniformly great. One of the best ensembles of the year.
It’s also another great step in the maturation process of writer/director Andrew Dominik. First really coming onto the scene with 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik has shown in both films that he has a lot of good ideas. In both cases, some of the little things, like hokey narration in Jesse James or the over the top messaging of Killing Them Softly (as well as some self-consciously flashy slow-mo camera techniques), get in the way of so much else that is absolutely right. If Dominik learns a bit more discipline, battling back his urge to self-indulge, then he will become one of the best auteurs working today.
Killing Them Softly, in the guise of a gangster flick, chronicles the crumbling and rotting of American culture from within. If you can stomach its heavy-handed packaging, there’s a lot to love about this movie. A sort of antithesis of It’s a Wonderful Life, Killing Them Softly is a super cynical movie that is a joy to behold.
- RU? Instant Reaction Review Podcast Ep. 37 – Killing Them Softly (areyouscreening.com)
- ‘Killing Them Softly’ review: Pitt never better (sfgate.com)
- Killing Them Softly (cinemablend.com)