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Killing Them Softly:” impressive story and performance

Kevin Noonan | Monday, December 3, 2012

 

“America isn’t a country, it’s a business. Now [expletive] pay me.”

“Killing Them Softly” may be one of Brad Pitt’s smaller films, and his role as a contract killer and fixer for the mob is one that may be forgotten in the context of his illustrious career.

But that line, which his character, Jackie Cogan, spits out at the end of the movie, is without a doubt one of the most powerful ones he’s ever delivered.

The quote sums up the themes of this crime drama from writer/director Andrew Dominik, which takes the standard “robbery gone bad now everybody shoots everybody” flick and sets it against the stark background of the 2008 economic collapse.

The film, which is based on the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, follows the events leading up to and following the robbery of a card game in an unnamed town (but almost everybody has a Boston accent) by two drug-addled, small-time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy, who also had a small role in “Argo”) and Russell (Ben Mendhelson, unrecognizable in this role, but a sharp eye will recognize him as the guy Bane put his hand on and asked if he felt in charge in “The Dark Knight Rises”).

The plan, orchestrated by sleazy laundromat owner everyone calls “Squirrel,” is to knock over a local cash-heavy card game run by some other, although well liked, sleazeball, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The idea is that since it’s well known Trattman already schemed to knock over his own game once before, everyone will just suspect he did it again and the two thieves will get away clean.

The robbery goes as planned, albeit in one of the most tense scenes in the film. There is some humor leading into the scene when Russell shows up with the “supplies,” yellow dishwashing gloves and a shotgun sawed off so far the shells poke through the end of the barrels, but the robbery itself is anything but lighthearted.

No one speaks for nearly the entire scene, and the only noise is the voice of President George W. Bush talking about the banking crisis on televisions in the background. The camera jumps rapidly at times and maintains eerie focus at others. It’s only a few minutes, but it’s an example of the skill of Dominick as a filmmaker at making the tension and emotion of a scene real to his audience.

The men escape with the money, and everything goes according to plan until the mob (with whom Trattman has some unexplained connection) brings in Cogan to fix the situation.

Cogan is clearly the pro of the situation, and he and the mobster lament the total “corporate mentality” and indecisiveness of the higher-ups. Cogan brings in another professional contract killer, Mickey (James Gandolfini), but it turns out Mickey has turned to drinking, is depressed about his financial and marital situation and just might be headed to jail.

The responsibility to take care of things falls to Cogan, which, without giving away too many details, does with ruthless efficiency, culminating in that final quote above.

The film is slower and more contemplative than most fans will expect from a Brad Pitt crime thriller, but it’s not certainly short of action or violence by any means. The message of the film lies not in the thievery or the gangster drama, but instead in the underlying economic recession and contemplation of America.

Dominick has made his film an allegory about the state of America and the impersonal, cold solutions people enact in order to handle their problems when times get tough.

And much like Pitt’s character, the message is anything but subtle. It’s right in your face from start to finish. The whole “American individualism is driving it into the ground” message is so prevalent it borders on overdone. There’s some begrudging respect for Dominick in delivering his message in the same form his film tells its story, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound like fingernails on a chalkboard after a while. Once time has passed, and the memory of the economic crisis isn’t so fresh in our minds, this film may be viewed differently, but today, it’s too much.

Pitt’s contained performance, as well impressive storytelling from Dominick, make this one of the better crime films of the year, but the political overtones hold it back from being a classic, for now at least.

 

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu