Killing Them Softly
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by Andrew Dominik
Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard
How long is Killing Them Softly? 97 minutes.
What is Killing Them Softly rated? R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Everything’s Rotten In The Parish Of Orleans
Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik built himself a respectable filmmaking foundation with Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His dour outlook and unflinching presentation are pleasantly comparable to the rise of contemporary Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, of Bronson and Pusher fame. However, Dominik’s latest foray into the semi-mainstream, Killing Them Softly, is no counterpart to Drive. In fact, the only award-worthy member of the Killing Them Softly crew is the one who cut the trailer.
There is an intriguing story hidden in away somewhere inside Killing Them Softly, and perhaps the source novel – Cogan’s Trade by George Higgins – made its point better. It is a meditation on the impact of a tanked economy on the criminal class. At best, it could be a thinking man’s bloodbath on the level of the original 1972 version of The Mechanic. However, despite a high-profile cast and several well-staged scenes of violence, this movie is largely toxic and indigestible.
It begins with a neat little plan for a heist. Small-time New Orleans hood Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) wants to rip off a local back-room poker game, framing rival Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) for the job and so sending the wrath of the mob – personified by the rarely-seen but often-reverently-discussed Dillon (Sam Shepard) – off the true trail. He hires former prison buddy Frankie (Scoot McNairy), for the job, and Frankie hires his derelict pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help. Frankie is a shrill motormouth with little endurance under pressure, and Russell is a petulant, physically repellent junkie with dreams of being a rich, physically repellent junkie. How could this go wrong? The preparation and execution of the heist bear unexpected parallels to the Coen brothers’ Fargo, had the first act of Fargo been scrubbed of its wit and left to ferment in an outhouse for a while.
There are bound to be audience walkouts in the first half hour of this movie. Although the quality improves somewhat over about a hundred minutes, stay at your own discretion. There are no amazing twists, and the humor is sparse and exceedingly bitter. In the absence of surprises, suspense, or subtlety of theme, Killing Them Softly must be taken at its unpleasant face value.
After the heist, the mob begins visiting brutality on anyone remotely involved, with the idea that eventually the culprits will be caught in the mix and killed. To expedite the search, Dillon places a call to slick-haired gun for hire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who already seems to know the score before arriving on the scene. He quibbles painfully over the bottom line with a jaded mob emissary (Richard Jenkins) in the shadow of the Huey Long Bridge. Both frequently lament the increasing bureaucracy affecting their trades “in this economy.” With the reluctant approval of his employers, Cogan hires his old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) from New York to help out, but the bloated, dissolute Mickey soon proves an expensive liability. Ultimately, Cogan must strike out all for himself, at whatever recession rates he can negotiate.
Did I forget to mention that Killing Them Softly takes place in hurricane-devastated New Orleans during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign? The film certainly never forgets to mention it, and the cramming of economic and political subtext into every open crack is as crude and savage as any of the violence. Dueling snippets from Obama, George W. Bush, and associated parties play over key scenes at maximum volume, as though there were any opportunity to forget what year it is or what societal woes color the lives of these miserable people. The hammering of sound bites adds nothing but dead weight, which would be bad enough if it were interrupting a fantastic script. Unfortunately, there is not even that distinction to spice the gruel, and writing a crime caper short on wit makes it worse than dime-a-dozen.
Stuffing a screenplay with drawn-out conversations boiling over with gleeful profanity does not make it Reservoir Dogs or Glengarry Glen Ross. Andrew Dominik must have undue faith in the power of his dialogue, because he piles it on the audience in scene after scene. These exchanges, and the overall tone of the film, do grow more palatable as the plot plays out, but the first act is so grueling and flavorless that the occasional moments of action are poor compensation for so much time wasted. With not a single character worth rooting for, where is the hope of identifying to any degree with what Killing Them Softly has to say?
Much is made of how especially upset Cogan’s employers are over losing money in such a shaky economy. Are we meant to understand that this story might have played out any differently under more favorable conditions? Tradition holds that when you steal from mobsters or hold up poker games in general, those are the kind of people that will come after you without mercy in any weather and at any hour. So what, basically, is the function of all the insistent “America Without Hope” grandstanding? All it can achieve is to date this film beyond hope of lasting remembrance. Life under organized crime is no less terrible in a boom, I’ll wager.
Of course, Killing Them Softly is supposed to be bleak and ugly and transgressive. What it should not be, however, is riddled with mediocre characterization and shoddy connections between its various sequences and plot threads. This is the kind of on-the-nose movie that plays the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” over a scene of Russell shooting up with… guess what… heroin, and Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” when the main character drives into town. The characters say everything that they think, leaving nothing for the audience to interpret or suspect.
An interesting middle act kicks briefly into place once Cogan’s associate Mickey implies that today’s contract killer is too depressed to work properly in such a stressful economic climate. Once Cogan absorbs this maudlin viewpoint, dismisses it, and gets busy shooting, things roll along smoothly until a too-abrupt and sour conclusion cuts the joke off without a punchline. Perhaps Cogan’s hard manner and soulless obsession with payday have come about through hard living and bad times. But can parallels really be drawn between honest people who work themselves to death on substandard wages and a surly loner who makes thirty grand on an investment of three or four bullets and a long weekend?
Killing Them Softly has all the right elements for a blistering satire, or merely a solid, offbeat action drama, but despite the best efforts of the cast, cavalier execution and a surprisingly poor script have made it a big unsightly mess. Even when exposing sores on society’s underbelly, it pays to write characters with some measure of appeal. Also, as an admittedly cheap parting shot, Killing Them Softly is a stupid name for a movie.