An ingenious, bracing gangster movie, Killing Them Softly is an astonishing instance of what happens when a crime drama takes hold with our modern economic and political times as a backdrop. Directed by Andrew Dominik, this 2012 film is based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. It takes the content from the book and transports it to the modern economic crisis.
Dominik wrote the screenplay and adapted the Higgins story to suit modern needs, but he also adjusted some of the details to address what the filmmaker considers an economic crisis brought on in large part by gambling. That the criminal architecture of the tale is set in a high-stakes poker game is no accident.
The movie opens in the fall of 2008 with the planning of a crime. Small-time hood Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his Australian heroin-taking buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) team up to take rob a private poker game involving some highfalutin gangsters. The plan is supposed to be ironclad, but things go spiralling out of control when Russell starts flapping his gums about the heist.
This brings Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mafia emissary, into the mix. He hires hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to clean up the mess and restore favour to the mob. There are issues of distrust involving Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) that need to be cleaned up as well. Jackie also figures he could use help, so he brings in Mickey (James Gandolfini) but discovers the creep may be more trouble than he’s worth.
Killing Them Softly is a patient motion picture, one that takes care to properly introduce and reveal its characters through their words and deeds. It helps immensely that the cast is stellar and the performances are stupendous from top to bottom. The characters reveal a rich world of economic hardship, desperation, criminality, and despair, but they also seem to convey a certain layer of confidence in their lifestyle choices.
Pitt puts in a tremendous turn as Cogan, a cold and procedure-driven hitman. He delivers lines with precision and care, unwearyingly exploring the contours of his character and delivering more than just a chilled-out killer. He looks with disdain on Obama’s election night speech, for instance, and delivers one of the best lines in the picture with unnerving resolve as things roll to conclusion.
Killing Them Softly is one of the best movies of 2012 and one of the best pure crime movies to come out in quite some time. It has a certain old school quality to it and earns its stripes through working class, hard-earned appeal. The dialogue is hard-boiled and deliberate, crackling with coarseness and detailed lyricism.
Along with the lyricism of the movie’s dialogue and the master class of performances on display, Dominik’s picture zeroes in on the realities of violence with unflinching tenacity. Some might argue that the killings are heavily stylized, but this seems to serve multiple purposes. While being aesthetically interesting, Dominik’s use of slo-mo also details the impact of bullets and the shattering of glass.
Reactions are also important as far as the violence is concerned. Characters cry out in agony, making wretched shows of themselves in glaring contrast to the ham-fisted actioners that often pollute cinema. The beating of Markie at the hands of two thugs is hard to watch in large part due to Liotta’s brilliant acting, while other characters cry out and “make noise” when they’re shot. In elucidating the consequences of violence in visceral terms, Dominik’s movie proves ultimately gripping.
Killing Them Softly, I’ll admit, is probably not what most people would expect given the trailers. But it is a brilliant motion picture, an achievement of fortitude and cunning that features one of the finest actors working today and a wonderfully persistent cadence. Its dialogue is rich, its characters are divine and its criminal grit is exceptional and bloody awesome.