Sometimes a film buff may wonder if they have seen all the gangster movies there are to see, then something like Killing Them Softly comes around. In his third feature, director Andrew Dominik seeks to capture the existential malaise of men in search of quick loot as well as those who kill them. At the same time, viewers looking for another bloody good time among gangsters will not be disappointed by the violence these men respectively deal out and have dealt unto them. Killing Them Softly may have a lot of talking, but in between the chatter— which always maintains a direct or indirect focus on the “business”— are quite a few indulgent scenes of the inevitable. The scenes are vile and gruesome but also full of pathos. The man at the center of the violence, a humorless and near weary hit man named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), warns us as much. “They plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing.”
This is not the cutesy pop culture chatter of Tarantino, meant to distract from the criminality of the criminals. This dialogue comes from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. The film adaptation is all about immersing into the trials and tribulations that haunt these people, wear them out and, in several cases, get them killed.
The drama opens with three men planning to holdup a poker game run by the mob. When mastermind and dry-cleaning business owner Johnny “the Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) discusses the details of the scheme with Frankie (Scoot McNairy), the plan reeks of danger. At the same time, these fools think it’s the greatest idea ever. But, Johnny says, they must move quick: “We’re not the only smart guys in the world.” Though the conversation seems repetitive at times, and Johnny more than once expresses his wariness of having Frankie bring in his junky friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) as backup, it effectively establishes the risk they are taking for the quick money. Killing Them Softly is about the thin social threads that barely hold together the crooks who deal in danger, who are all simply only thinking about themselves in the long run.
The tone of the film is brilliantly established during the opening credits. Pitch blackness surrounds a small square of a window looking over a wasteland of papers blowing in the wind. The sound of President Barack Obama offering a message of economic optimism to a cheering crowd plays on the soundtrack. The ruined landscape and Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech can be interpreted in many ways, and those of different political persuasions and biases will do as much. However, the speech cuts off to succumb to a droning, one note, industrial-like tone that hums along for a few seconds during a black screen and the stark presentation of white opening credits. It toggles from one unreality to another, the tone varying in pitch upon each return as the window grows larger, and a man walks out of the darkness and toward the dilapidated land. The interplay of the various roaring hums and Obama’s speech brightens the speech in compliment, making the drone all the more difficult to hear. Adding more disorienting uncertainty to the opening scene is the shifting focus, which blurs the images. It turns out the man stepping out of the darkness and into the ruin is Frankie. This is a brilliant dramatic ploy that, in retrospect of today’s age, sets up the uncertainty and greed of the men at the heart of the movie.
Set against the background of hope and change promised by the election of Obama, the men— and the film only features men— inhabit a decrepit town (Dominik shot the film in New Orleans). Most exteriors feature rotting neighborhoods with weather-beaten homes and gray weeds overgrown into the sidewalks. Frankie rendezvous with Russell in a lot where a house may have once stood. Only furniture remains, strewn in the open air. With the ruin, and drab color palette, Killing Them Softly has a hyper-atmospheric visual style that recalls the gritty, early seventies-era gangster flicks, like that other movie based on a Higgins novel, the Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). The mise-en-scène around Frankie and Russell remains consistent around them throughout the film: They are headed nowhere from nowhere. During the stick up at the poker game, the camera often sits close and over their shoulders, adding a deeper claustrophobic quality to their rut, not to mention ratcheting up the tension in the scene.
But these poor slobs are the incompetent low-lives who always seem to have to look over their shoulders, waiting for the inevitable. The inevitable arrives in the form of Jackie Cogan who does not take long to figure out the responsible parties of the heist with a roll of his eyes. Pitt plays Jackie with so much cool and swagger, he seems the anti-hero of the movie, but before his cool-handed death-dealing comes to light, we meet Mickey (James Gandolfini). Jackie suggests him as a second man on the hit job to his liaison with the mob, a nameless man known only as “Driver” in the film credits (Richard Jenkins). He tells the driver, who simply holds meetings in his car and barely even seems to drive, that Mickey is one of the best in the business. However, when Jackie picks up Mickey at the airport, Mickey cannot seem to stop moaning about his divorce, drinking non-stop and thinking about hookers.
Though the scenes between Jackie and Mickey might seem rather long, they reveal the wonder of two fine actors who know how to take turns and listen to one another. It only enhances the connection and dichotomy of the two, as Mickey is gradually and subtly revealed as Jackie’s double. With all his confidence, Jackie may seem to be on the way up, but he is also fated to become the next Mickey. All of the men in Killing Them Softly know their social circles are other men like them, but they are all ultimately on their own. “The world’s shit, and we’re all alone,” says Frankie toward the end of the movie. Jackie, however, gets the last line: “We’re in America, and in America you’re on your own,” before he adds a sadder truth: “and it’s a fuckin’ business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”
The film might seem rather contrived to some. The Obama and even George W. Bush speechifying on the economy overheard on radios or television sets throughout the movie grows redundant. The conversations are often long and droney. Jackie even says at one point, “I have to explain this twice?” Even the use of ironic music like an old-time love song during the extreme slow-motion death of one of the gangsters seems heavy-handed. In extreme contrast, sometimes, the songs are used a little too literally (Velvet Underground’s “Heroine” while Russell shoots up?). Song choices are a tough line to walk sometimes and only a handful of directors have a true knack to get it right, anyway (Scorsese, Tarantino, Crowe and Anderson are among the few). However, Dominik deserves credit for maintaining a compact and focused perspective on the film’s theme while maintaining a brisk if varied pace. He never strays into over-characterizing his subjects, maintaining an intriguing balance around the ambiguity of these men. He also embraces the language Higgins’ source material provides to illuminate his subject at hand, which carries into the conundrum of these lives that play so close to the edge of death.
Killing Them Softly is Rated R (it earns it) and runs 97 minutes. It opens in wide release this Friday, Nov. 30, across the U.S. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.