Somewhere at the crossroads of Coen and Tarantino, you’ll come upon Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. This adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade, is pulpy and literate, stylish and violent. For anyone in need of a visceral boost of crime drama, this is the movie for you.
The film opens when two street hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), an ex-con, and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a heroin addict, scheme with Johnny ”Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob a mob-run poker game. The game in question is operated by a crook named Markie (Ray Liotta), who had pulled off the same heist years earlier, paying a couple of hoods to hold up the game. Years have passed, Markie has blabbed about the inside job and been forgiven, and now Squirrel wants to use the information to pull off the perfect robbery. Everyone will think it was Markie pulling the job again, while Frankie, Russell and Squirrel make off with a stack of cash.
The guys pull the job, but they don’t know whom they’re dealing with. Almost immediately, the mafia calls upon the services of hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to uncover who pulled the job and take care of things (if you know what I mean). Jackie is one cool character and has a particular way of dealing with his targets. He doesn’t like to kill guys he knows because of the emotional problems it creates. He likes to “kill them softly,” when they aren’t expecting it.
In hilarious scenes with a driver (Richard Jenkins), Jackie lays out his plan. He arranges for Mickey, a down on his luck hitman from New York (James Gandolfini) to take care of things. But Mickey’s head isn’t on straight, so the responsibility is thrust back into Jackie’s lap. He uncovers who did what and makes them pay.
Dominik is the director of the moody epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If you were a fan of that movie’s contemplative pacing and style, then you’ll appreciate Killing Them Softly. If you weren’t such a fan, you’ll still probably enjoy Killing Them Softly as this film moves along at a brisk pace and has a visual style that is exciting and beautiful to watch.
The director has taken a literary approach to the movie, using the first twenty minutes to set up everything and execute the heist. Pitt doesn’t even show up until a half hour into the movie, which is a bold move when working with one of the world’s biggest stars. But this storytelling choice works because Jackie’s entrance and the coolness that Pitt brings to the character really make you understand that this fella is badass.
The cast of Killing Them Softly is stellar. McNairy (last seen in Argo) brings innocence to Frankie that make him almost sympathetic. Liotta shows a feeble side to Markie that is unexpected (especially from the guy who plays a sociopath in so many films). Gandolfini is great as the schlumpy Mickey, and Jenkins is absolutely perfect as the middleman between the bosses in New York (who run things like a corporation) and the men who do the dirty work.
My only criticism is that the Mickey story kind of drags the film down for a bit. I understand how this plotline would work in a novel, but on film it just seems like a way to get Gandolfini on screen with Pitt for twenty minutes. However, like the best Coen Brothers movies and Tarantino films, the tangents are often the most insightful moments, showing us glimpses of characters we might not otherwise have seen.
Set in New Orleans during the 2008 financial crisis, Killing Them Softly uses the landscape of the Crescent City to great effect. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is striking and enriches the action. Additionally, Dominik chose to use sound bites from then President Bush, candidates McCain and Obama, as well as radio pundits to set the mood of people desperate to do anything for some extra cash. It’s tough for a pulp crime movie to make a political and social statement, but Killing Them Softly pulls it off.