Watching Killing Them Softly, one can almost picture the “a-ha” moment when writer/director Andrew Dominik was reading “Cogan’s Trade,” the book on which it is based, and came up with the idea of setting this story during the early days of the 2008 financial collapse. Images and sound bites of George W. Bush and Barack Obama pepper the film; indeed, every time we see a television, it is displaying something about the collapse or the presidential election. Dominik uses this context to draw parallels between the white-collar crime of Wall Street and Washington and the petty thugs his film depicts, and while he often lays on this subtext a little too thick, it adds much-needed context to this very small but exceedingly well-executed story.
The film opens on two low-level crooks who take a job to knock over an illegal card game. It seems all too easy: the guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), hired guys to rob it once before, so the crooks figure that people will assume he has done it again and no one will come looking for them. Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a crime movie if things went according to plan. A mysterious committee that employs Markie hires Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional hitman, to find and kill the people responsible.
On paper, it sounds humdrum, especially considering that, outside of a few vivid outbursts of violence, much of the film consists of long, rambling conversations between characters. But the political context adds weight and intrigue. Much of Cogan’s work, for example, hinges on the perception of punishment. Cogan’s first act of business is administering a brutal beating to Markie, not because he had anything to do with the robbery but because people believe he did and punishment must be doled out to maintain order in the streets. In both Washington and in the slums of New Orleans, politics is perception.
Dominik is working off the notion that the crime world is a microcosm for the economy at large, and the lessons learned and struggles endured by the characters in Killing Them Softly can easily be correlated to those experienced by more upstanding members of society. This metaphor explains some of the more unusual choices made by Dominik; for example, consider the inordinate amount of time spent with the character of Mickey (James Gandolfini), a colleague of Cogan’s whom he calls in to help him with the job. In two long scenes, we learn much about his character – a bad marriage, drinking problem, and mountains of debt – and then he is gone from the movie. It is a terrific performance by Gandolfini, who plays Mickey with the bitterness of the American middle-class worker who has not received the bounty he was promised.
Despite these political undertones, Killing Them Softly is a strictly non-partisan affair. Although Cogan launches a bitter diatribe against Obama for his purported themes of community and inclusiveness in the film’s too on-the-nose final scene, it is clear that the filmmakers are lamenting a broken and corrupt system, not the failure of any one leader or political party. Although Obama’s words open and close the film, setting the story in the grimiest parts of New Orleans implicates the previous administration, as well.
As you may have figured out by now, Killing Them Softly is a very unusual crime film, but it is hardly unsurprising, considering the recent trends of violent movies with brains. This is the third crime film released this fall that insists on contemplating its violence. While Pulp Fiction and its hundreds of imitators scattered bits of philosophy in between blood-splattered action, recent movies like Looper, Seven Psychopaths, and, now, Killing Them Softly build their entire plots around questions regarding the impact of violence in society and film. Killing is the most violent of the three – it includes one of the most vicious beatings ever put on film – but its violence is staged in such a way that it is deeply felt. Even an assassination filmed in excruciating slow-motion serves this purpose; it is an entertaining and lyrical on-screen murder, but it also slows the action down so that we can fully grasp and fully consider each stage – the cocking of the gun, the shattered glass, and the moment of impact.
Killing Them Softly is not an indictment of violence – it is far too entertaining for that – but it is deeply concerned with the systems that create such violence. The filmmakers deserve credit for raising the question – often too bluntly, though – of who is responsible for our culture of violence. It is a question without a simple answer, especially when we find that culture so damn fun to watch.
My Rating: See it in the Theater