Review: Killing Them Softly
PLOT: Two lowlife hoods (Scoot McNairy & Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to knock off Markie Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) high-stakes underground casino. Having previously knocked off one of his own games and gotten a pass, Markie knows his days are numbered, and the mob brings fixer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to town to re-establish order.
REVIEW: It’s no coincidence that KILLING THEM SOFTLY takes place on the eve of the 2008 presidential election- just as the U.S was reeling from a financial collapse that we’re still feeling after yet another election. In many ways, the mob of KILLING THEM SOFTLY is like a microcosm of the US government, dealing with a financial crisis by throwing more money at it, and then hesitating to punish those responsible, thanks to a bureaucracy that won’t allow the hard decisions to be made.
Yep- the mob featured here is truly a 21st century, American variation- represented brilliantly by Richard Jenkins’ milquetoast middle-man. He’s condescendingly referred to as counsellor by Pitt’s old-school, leather-clad enforcer, who’s supposed to be in town to quickly kill those responsible, but finds himself killing nothing but time for a good chunk of the movie.
Suffice to say, Andrew Dominik’s KILLING THEM SOFTLY is thoroughly different take on mob life, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from the man behind two of the best (and most underrated) films of the ‘aughts- CHOPPER and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.
Based on the novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins (whose other book-to-film adaptation, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, is a lot like this) - KILLING THEM SOFTLY, despite the weird, Roberta Flack-ish title, is probably one of my favorite films of the year. Running a tight, concise 97 minutes, I was riveted from beginning to end. Despite the top-billed Pitt, who’s undeniably great, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is an ensemble, and a good half-hour goes by before we ever see Pitt.
The beginning of the film establishes the two crooks played by McNairy and Mendelsohn. Fresh out of jail, McNairy’s Frankie just wants to score some quick cash, and is easily suckered by his boss Johnny Amato’s (Vincent Curatola of THE SOPRANOS) hare-brained scheme. Mendelsohn’s character Russell is a heroin addict, who runs a dog-stealing scheme to make enough money to set himself up as a dealer, but- like Frankie, goes for the quick fix.
Both Mendelsohn and McNairy are amazing. There’s a scene between the two about halfway through the film where McNairy tries to question a stoned Mendelsohn, who keeps fading in and out of his heroin-fueled daze, which is on-par with anything in a Martin Scorsese crime epic.
Other players include Ray Liotta, in arguably his best role since NARC as the doomed Markie Trattman, who takes one of the screen’s most vicious beatings in a while. Liotta’s desperate pleading and crying in this scene manages to be both thoroughly disturbing, even though you may not be able to keep from laughing at the darkly comedic absurdity of it all. It’s another incredible scene.
Meanwhile, James Gandolfini shows up as Pitt’s buddy, a fellow hit-man, who, Pitt is horrified to discover, has lost himself in an endless supply of booze and hookers, rendering him useless. Their lunch together, where Gandolfini desperately tries to intimidate the waiter to bring his drinks faster and faster is yet another incredible scene, in a film chock-full of them.
As for the killings of KILLING THEM SOFTLY, when they happen, they happen just like the title promises- softly, with a almost beautiful drive-by shooting midway through the film, contrasted with a more vicious, messy- but quiet killing later in the film. Like in JESSE JAMES, Dominik gets a lot out of Pitt- who, it has to be said, is pretty amazing these days, with his Cogan being an all-business type, without a moral compass. In his own words, “in America, you’re on your own”- and he does what he has to in order to survive.
Like JESSE JAMES, KILLING THEM SOFTLY might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure was for me. At ninety minutes, I didn’t want it to end, and it’s one of the few films to leave me wanting more- a sure sign of a great movie. Dominik’s movie is something special, and his craft is astounding, with it boasting no musical score other than source music and some ambient piano-pieces that sound diegetic. Hopefully this one will find the audience it deserves- and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.