Andrew Dominik, the man who brought us the fantastically dark comedy Chopper and the largely underestimated epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, brings a new tight and visceral look at the criminal world during the economic collapse of 2008.
Brad Pitt, who had worked with Dominik on The Assassination of Jesse James, returns for a second collaboration (and a producer credit) plays Cogan, a professional mob enforcer called in to find out and kill the two bumbling criminals (played exceptionally by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) who turned over a mob poker game.
Pitt moves away from the traditional hitmen we’ve normally seen in gangster and crime films. Here he isn’t an anti-hero that we find charming and attractive even though he’s a hardened killer, Pitt’s Cogan is a terrifying and merciless enforcer that takes his job seriously.
We have some moments, when he first arrives, where we get a light-hearted feeling from this weary killer, professing his distaste with killing people up close because they cry and plead too much and how he prefers to kill them from a distance, to “kill them softly” as he puts it.
The crux of the first part of the film is the fact that Markie Trattman has previously robbed one of his own poker games, and everyone thinks that he seems to have done it again. Pitt dismisses the fact and states that he should be killed anyway, that people needed to be shown that something was happening in order to get the games going again and for people to make money.
The comparisons with the banking crisis around which the film is set is perfectly attuned to this idea, if a little heavy handed. Dominik interlaces his scenes with clips and sound bites from speeches made by then-presidential nominee Barack Obama and then-incumbent George Walker Bush, we are forced to make the connection with the world at large.
It’s the only way that the film falls down, where Dominik seems capable of much more subtlety than here. The piece-de-resistance however is Cogan’s final speech, set to the backdrop of Obama’s victory speech, we see true cynicism and anger from him. It’s a perfect summation of the film’s feel and the message behind it and a great way to finish a brilliant piece of work.
The criminal world has become more of a criminal corporation, with no main decider and a committee of criminal heads all discussing options. It’s a system that Cogan finds frustrating and one reflective of the slow progression of laws through Congress and the Senate, where everything must be discussed and reviewed, even during a crisis.
The economic times have hit the hitmen too. The background villain “Dylan”, who we only hear about really, is out of action and the reason Cogan was called in. We find out that his rates have dropped from $15k per kill to $10k. We also meet Mickey, an old hitman friend of Cogan, who is contracted to kill someone that Cogan already knows and so can’t kill. We find him a shell of his former self, an alcoholic and a prostitute addict and still in mourning over his terminal marriage. James Gandolfini plays Mickey too flawlessly and becomes both the comic relief and the tragic image of what happens for guys who stay in ‘the game’ too long.
Nevertheless, people must die – mainly the two who knocked over the game, the person who hired them to do it and unfortunately Trattman, but only to keep up appearances.
The treatment of Trattman is brilliant and you almost feel sympathy with the character, even though we know he must be a despicable character. In Killing Them Softly we are presented with one of the most brutal beatings ever filmed, reminiscent of the elevator scene in Drive and it shows violence for what it truly is, dirty, unfair and nothing glamorous.
In fact, the Killing Them Softly has a distinct connection to the feeling of Drive, both in its unashamed portrayal of the brutality of the criminal underworld and the slow pacing. Talks and interactions pervade most of the film with loud bangs of violence scattered throughout, it makes for a much larger impact than other pieces.
I could go on for quite a while about all of the merits of Killing Them Softly, but that would include far too many spoilers and expertly timed surprises. Instead, I’ll simply say that it’s worth watching. Especially if you’re a bit of a film buff. It has nothing of the sprawling epic The Assassination of Jesse James, and it’s far more compact at 90 minutes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch when it needs to.
Just be aware that you won’t be getting out-and-out violence, several people walked out of the screening I saw because they were disappointed with the lengthy areas between the violence, but you will get amazing characters, brilliantly shot scenes and something real and meaningful.