I’m slightly torn in my feelings about Killing Them Softly. On the one hand I think it could potentially be an excellent addition to the canon of great gangster movies… Goodfellas and The Departed instantly came to mind after watching this film. On the other hand, there’s something about it that bothers me, itching the back of my brain, not quite in the realm of conscious thought. I thought it was a good film, and yet…
It starts out with a conversation. Two criminals, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), fresh out of prison, are hired to hold up a mob-protected card game. It’s a bad idea from the start but the argument is that the guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), will get the blame because it’s a known fact that he held up one of his own games in the past. The heist is a success, and while the three co-conspirators are enjoying the spoils, the word on the street is that Markie knocked over his own game again. So everything went just as planned, right? Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit-man hired by a mysterious group of mafia men represented throughout the film by a man called Driver (Richard Jenkins). Jackie is no fool and quickly recognizes that Markie was set up, but also contends that Markie’s past actions made this whole thing possible and so he has to die.
On top of this, Russell is an idiot and a junkie (and a sweat machine, apparently) and he runs his mouth to someone he shouldn’t. So Jackie pretty quickly finds out who was really involved in the heist. The hit list is getting longer. At least one of the marks knows Jackie so he calls in an old friend to help out, Mickey (James Gandolfini). This is where the movie gets its slightly ironic name. Jackie likes to “kill them softly”.
Not without noise, but without emotional fuss. He’s an emotionally distant guy, which becomes abundantly clear the longer the film goes on. But the film doesn’t go where you think it is going to go. It doesn’t become about the hunting and killing of these four hapless souls. It somehow becomes about the relationships between these characters against the backdrop of 2008 New Orleans, the national economic collapse, the depression and desperation of a city, and the hope the 2008 election of Barack Obama could bring. Entwined with what is an excellent soundtrack are soundbites of President Bush and the then-candidate Obama talking about the economic crisis of our country. And indeed, there is even a scene discussing the hit-man fee and how they just don’t make what they used to make these days. And I think this is where the film went a little wrong for me. Not because this was the background that was used, but that screenwriter/director Andrew Dominik beat us over the head with it. Although in retrospect, it might all have been worth it when it culminates in Jackie’s rant at the end, in proper gangster movie form. But you’ll have to be the judge of that for yourself.
Ultimately what I took away from the film is that Jackie is the only character in the movie who is not a complete fuck-up (at least as much as a criminal of his stature can be). And he’s surrounded by the creme dela creme of fuck-ups. This isn’t the kind of movie with a protagonist that learns something. Or an anti-hero that becomes something else. No, nothing like that. It’s the type of movie (if there is a type) that shows you who these characters are, where they live, what they do and what happens to them, along with the consequences of their actions. But no one really changes or has any monumental realizations about life. This is the world we live in, suck it up and deal with it.
I give this movie 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls.
A few fun facts: Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of George V. Higgin’s 1974 novel, Cogen’s Trade. Andrew Dominik adapted the novel and moved it from Boston in the 70’s to New Orleans in 2008. Andrew Dominik has previously directed Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Check out the trailer here: