REVIEW: Killing Them Softly [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 97 minutes | Release Date: November 30th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Andrew Dominik
Writer(s): Andrew Dominik / George V. Higgins (novel Cogan’s Trade)

“America’s not a country. It’s just a business.”

Now I know why writer/director Andrew Dominik changed his film’s name to Killing Me Softly. It’s not because star Brad Pitt uses the phrase to describe his preferred method of murder; that just supplied the words. I’d like to believe he did so because he knew how different a beast it was from the novel by George V. Higgins on which it’s based, Cogan’s Trade. Written in 1974, the book obviously couldn’t have had our recent global recession in mind let alone available to use as a backdrop for the action. Rather than just a pulpy thriller within the criminal element of Boston’s streets, Dominik turned it into a metaphor for a country motivated by selfish men for selfish reasons. As the economy spirals downward on the cusp of the 2008 election, no business—least of all the Mob—is left unscathed.

It’s an interesting aesthetic choice when so many probably would have jumped at the chance to make a 70s era piece about screw-up kids and the contract killers sent to clean their mistakes. Higgins’ previous novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle had already been adapted into an acclaimed movie just three years after its 1970 publishing date, so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone wanting to stay true to that world and ride its coattails. Maybe the explanation is as easy as saying Dominik wanted to get away from the artifice of recreating past worlds after his brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did so in spades. He saw the chance to make something in the present with purpose—especially considering its festival rounds preceded a new election mired in many of the same questions from four years ago.

Right from the start we hear Barack Obama’s voice as a small time crook named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walks down a street littered in paper. The imagery plays to a campaign speech, alternating with the opening credits’ quick frames of white text on black set to a deafening electronic pulse. A sense of dread is built on frame one and the struggles to come arrive within a desolate wasteland of tired and scared citizens incapable of knowing when the financial crisis will level off. You have billboards depicting Obama and John McCain—Democrat against Republican—spewing their rhetoric into this seedy underworld of greedy men. One side tries to construct a democratic, authoritative collective turning easy decisions into lazy mistakes wrapped in bureaucratic red tape while the other finds the job they were hired to do neutered under the weight of their bosses’ uncertainty.

Everything that happens can be directly attributed to the times and those stuck looking for a quick fix to stave off destruction. The only difference from the life you or I live is that this one takes place in a world driven by unlawful acts and the necessary bouts of revenge unfolding to inject a peace of mind back into the fray. While people go bankrupt feet away, men like Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) continue doing what they always have. Except now there’s a little voice wondering when the life of crime is going to begin its own round of top-level employee reductions. They overstep their bounds, flap their lips, and unwittingly create better opportunities for the bottom feeders doing all they can for a chance at the big time. The only problem for these lucky, unambitious cretins is that they too don’t know when to shut up.

Killing Me Softly ultimately depicts the American dream and the cutthroat mentality needed to achieve its spoils. Everyone wants to get rich quick, clue in their friends, and forget hard choices must be made to ensure your own livelihood is protected. While often violent and at times a comedy of errors, the film is not fast-paced suspense about bad men doing bad things. In actuality it’s quite slow, methodical, and contingent upon a series of long conversations working through the reality of their situation as the emotional fatigue of a new, broken world takes its toll. Dialogue drives the action as each hears the sounds of the political machine on televisions and radios. They listen and shake their heads, too busy with their own problems to worry about a nation in need. It’s tough when hitmen need a pay cut to stay employed.

Everyone is on edge and unsure of how the lifestyle must change to remain fruitful. The Mob’s middleman (Richard Jenkins) attempts to toe the line as emissary, upholding the misguided decisions of those not understanding the big picture despite understanding dark deeds must be done; assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives a shell of the powerful man he once was, in the midst of a complete mental breakdown for added drunken fun; and junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) might as well go door to door in order to get in bed with whomever may have a decent score in the works and a vacant spot on his crew. It’s literally kill or be killed out there and the only one with a cool head is the man with his finger on the trigger. Unfortunately for Jackie Cogan (Pitt), he’s not calling the shots.

Pitt is the entrepreneur willing to go the extra step to survive a clientele all too willing to rollback their compensation relative to the economic climate. He has a strict code and he abides by it, always finding a way to make his beneficiaries happy no matter how wrong they may be. It’s a role dripping in confidence that’s right up the actor’s alley complete with scenes of pure exasperation at the men he once respected falling apart before his eyes. His steady hand contrasts McNairy’s skittish, petty thief nicely while everyone else becomes intellectual comedic fodder or punching bags or both. But despite being an actor showcase, don’t deny Dominik his visual spoils. With impressive slomotion bullet mayhem and drug use giving all five senses a workout, Killing Me Softly is a technical gem.

[1] Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in KILLING THEM SOFTLY Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions
[2] Ben Mendelsohn as Russell and Scoot McNairy as Frankie in KILLING THEM SOFTLY Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions
[3] James Gandolfini as Mickey in KILLING THEM SOFTLY Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions

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