Killing Them Softly (2012)
“In America you’re on your own”
Director: Andrew Dominick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins
Synopsis: Jackie Cogan is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.
There’s something of those gritty 1970s crime movies about Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them softly, which perhaps isn’t surprising given that it’s based on a novel by George V. Higgins, one of whose other novels provided the source for 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In fact, this movie bears a few similarities with that one, anchoring its story firmly in the deliberately un-glamorous milieu of the American working class. Ultimately, it provides a grimly downbeat message, summarised by the closing lines of Jackie Cogan, Brad Pitt’s gun for hire as he attempts to get full payment for his services from a reluctant Richard Jenkins . ‘I’m living in America,’ he says, ‘and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f***ing pay me.’
The story follows the repercussions arising from the robbery of an illegal mob-organised card game managed by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Trattman is initially suspected of being behind the robbery because he perhaps unwisely once revealed that he was the brains behind a previous robbery, for which he was forgiven. The robbery was, in fact, carried out by Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of not-too-bright hoods working for Johnny Amata (Vincent Curatolo). Amata rightly believes that Trattman will be blamed for the heist, but the mob hire Cogan to find the guys responsible in order to restore confidence in their illegal games.
Killing Them Softly is one of those movies that is more interested in its characters than it is in the story they are playing out. A long diversion sees Cogan welcome old friend Mickey (James Gandolfini) to town to carry out the hit on one of those responsible, and shows us a man who is slowly self-destructing because of the pressures his job brings to his marriage. It’s an absorbing character study which is superbly played by Gandolfini, and it’s entirely in keeping with the tone and pace of the story as a whole, but it adds nothing to the storyline other than atmosphere. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing. Too many movies today eschew character — other than to provide the most basic of motivation — in favour of plot. It also means that too many viewers brought up on the type of movie that sells at the box office will come away from a viewing feeling that it’s too slow.
Although Higgins’ novel was published in 1974, Dominik updates it to 21st Century America at a time when Barack Obama was running for the presidency of the country, and contrasts the idealistic monologues of the leaders of America with the realities of life not just as a low-grade American criminal but of the country as a whole. In fact, Killing Them Softly can be seen as an allegory of the US political system, although in many ways the allegory is a little too heavy handed to be entirely successful.
The criminal’s life is portrayed as one of (dis)honest toil. The robbery is filmed with considerable tension but without glamour; these are just seedy men stealing from equally seedy men in a run-down back room. Trattman, the man suspected of engineering the robbery, lives in the same modest trailer-park home he lived in when the first robbery was staged, and a mob-sanctioned beating of him is filmed in horrific, unflinching close-up. Trattman squeals and cries and feebly holds his hands in front of his face before throwing up on his attacker’s shoes. Only one hit is shown in anything approaching a romanticised style, and while it’s stylistically impressive it’s decidedly at odds with the rest of the movie.
Killing Them Softly is an intelligent, thought-provoking movie which refuses to pander to the commercial imperatives to which Hollywood too often shackles itself. It’s not without flaws — but few movies are — and is worth 97 minutes of anybody’s time.