Killing Them Softly (2012)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Cinematography by: Greig Fraser
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy
It’s rather telling, if not bold, of a film, to spend its first twenty-five minutes with characters the audience perhaps doesn’t expect to see, and might even be heavily turned off watching. Yet Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, not only does it, but in doing so, creates what I believe is downright the rawest film I’ve seen all year. It clocks in a little over an hour and a half, and like the book, it moves at a brisk pace for much of its running time.
Set during the 2008 presidential election, we’re introduced to Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), small time crooks, employed by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a local card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta), who has already “robbed” his own game once. Blame falls on him yet again, but Frankie and Russell don’t exactly make a clean escape. Enter the Driver (Richard Jenkins), who brings in Jackie (Brad Pitt) to take care of the mess, who in turn, brings his strung out, drunk, and newly divorced partner, Mickey (James Gandolfini) along for the ride.
A film of this nature is tough to fully get down. It immediately throws you into this world, and doesn’t really wait for you to adjust your eyes to it, or your focus, or your mind, or even your ears. While that may be seen as a tumultuous start for many, I found myself only stumbling through the first few minutes or so, trying to wrap my head around the sound direction (of hearing any combination of Obama, Bush, and/or economic politics), the cinematography (of seeing a ravaged New Orleans harbor), and the thick Boston accents coming from the screen. Once I settled in, I was hooked. I was an observer. I was privy to information that yes, wasn’t always essential in moving the plot forward, but it was essential in getting to know who these characters were.
As mentioned above, the parallels between the mob, the economy, and the politics underlying the two, are absolutely crucial, if not blatant within the film’s narrative. There are moments where the characters are just sitting at a bar watching TV, or in the car listening to the radio, and the scene is driven by the words being echoed by then-presidential candidate Obama, or President Bush. Billboards of “Change,” and John McCain’s face litter the background, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the mob was probably the most well informed constituent in that particular election. It’s not jarring, but sometimes, it’s also not the most subtle reminder of both the times, the motives, or the parallel itself. Then again, it’s probably not supposed to be. All that leaves is the film itself, a gripping crime drama, that’s well aware of its world, and its stakes, and it just doesn’t stop. Even when it takes a break to relatively slow down, it’s nothing short of a fascinating insight into a world inhabited by brilliantly despicable characters.
Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill from GoodFellas (1990) all grown up, and you sympathize–that this a guy who wanted nothing more than to be on his own, and run his own show–but somewhere along the line, he lost both his touch and his control. His downfall creates one of the film’s most showstopping scenes. The two lowlifes, as played by Mendelsohn and McNairy, had the tough job of keeping an audience engaged for the better part of the first half. Mendelsohn is completely wasted in the role, doing his part and nothing more, but it is McNairy that rises to the occasion. He plays his character in two shades, but it is only in the second half of the film, when his path finally crosses with Pitt, that I started to really relate and find his character out. James Gandolfini, Mr. Tony Soprano himself, completely surprised me in the brief time he’s in this flick. You could take his character completely out of the film, and the narrative wouldn’t skip a beat, but why on Earth would you do that? This man nails every scene he’s in, that you want to do nothing more than to let Pitt go on his merry little way and just watch and live in Mickey’s world. The man’s a powerhouse that I was afraid might be overshadowed by playing a character so close to Soprano. But I can safely say, there is a moment in this film, where Gandolfini made me cry with a certain line delivery. These are absolutely despicable people, but I found myself caving to the humanity brought to them.
That just leaves Brad Pitt, who walks into the film under Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” and walks out of the film to President Obama’s victory speech, and in that time, remains the same character throughout. This isn’t a man we love because he grows, or changes in the course of the film. We love him because he’s precisely the same guy all the way through. He knows what he wants, but more importantly, he knows how to get it. It’s a very understated performance; not over the top, and dare I say, very stoic. He’s in constant control, even when things aren’t going his way, and there’s never a moment where we hesitate about his character’s intentions or motives, because he doesn’t. He gets the film’s final lines, and it’s a scene that’s worth the price of admission on its own.
Andrew Dominik has directed three films in his twelve year career. I have not seen Chopper (2000), but I absolutely fell in love with the magnificent slow burn that was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and Killing Them Softly is yet another feather in his cap. He’s a man who seems to genuinely love the cinema he creates, and relishes in the ability to tell a story using everything at his disposal. As a writer, he made the creative decision to move the setting and the time period of the film from the book, and it works on a level I never necessarily would have thought–of comparing mob practices to the economic crisis engulfing a nation. Every scene, shot, and line of dialogue is perfectly crafted, and it’s no doubt a testament to Dominik’s craft. Years from now, I have no doubt that there are scenes from this film that will rank with the very best that such cinema ever had to offer.