Killing Them Softly

Published on October 16th, 2012

By Ystyn Francis

Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik, from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta
Length: 97 min.

The heist of a mob-protected poker game by two lowlifes, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), instigates the arrival of enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who meticulously commences dishing out calculated and violent retribution.

The word unfilmable is tossed around a lot these days; however, anyone who has read George V. Higgins’ pulpy but highly original gangster novel Cogan’s Trade can testify that not only does it tell a very simple story (as emphasised above), but that there is barely any scene description. That Killing Them Softly exists is thanks to great inventiveness on behalf of writer-director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt’s passion project, Plan B Entertainment.

After claiming a Best Picture Oscar with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed in 2006, Plan B’s list of ‘In Production’ titles quickly expanded to include so many supposedly unfilmable texts that the company seemed to be purposefully setting out to prove the cynics wrong. Extremely difficult novel-to-film projects The Time Traveler’s Wife (Robert Schwentke 2009), Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughan 2010) and Moneyball (Bennett Miller 2011) were all very successful, and Marc Forster’s adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z should release soon, ongoing complications permitting.

So, despite its seemingly meagre cinematic potential, Cogan’s Trade was in the right creative hands. And indeed, how Dominik carefully and cleverly contextualises the events of the novel and fully fleshes out all players probably constitutes his best work as a writer and director. But the source material just doesn’t offer enough to elevate Killing Them Softly to the level of excellence achieved in his other classic films Chopper (2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Still, this is a fascinating film.

What separates Killing Them Softly from other gangster films is both its strongest, most unique asset and its biggest flaw. The glorified world of the gangster so garishly yet nonchalantly established by Quentin Tarantino in the late 90s has become the archetype for the genre since. Until now. The criminals in Killing Them Softly are not all cool career professionals; they are everyday Joes and skid row scumbags – desperate, shortsighted, and painstakingly human. Russell’s stench all but oozes from the screen, and Gandolfini’s hitman Mickey is what you would expect Tony Soprano to become if he ever lost his family. Gone is the glib, ultra-hip dialogue, replaced by mundane conversation that’s repetitive, somber, self-obsessed, and often absolutely ridiculous. Much of this conversation would be painful to watch if it wasn’t being delivered by such a stellar cast, all of whom are superb.

The presidential campaigning visible on billboards and heard from televisions and radios throughout will prompt many to discuss the film’s social commentary linking the U.S.’s current fiscal incapacitation with the plights of the poor souls who populate the story. Dominik is a little heavy-handed in this respect, but this commentary does add substance to the initially slender story and allows the film to take advantage of the devastated landscapes of rust belt America.

Like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson 2011), Killing Them Softly is the slowest of slow burns, but Dominik once again proves himself capable of handling this approach; he is certainly among the most confident directors at handling silence. The film is a brave experiment that succeeds largely through his bravado and Pitt’s immersion in the role of Cogan, but it is likely to be remembered more for being different than good.

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