Killing Them Softly
A follow-up to the roundly-acclaimed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, reuniting director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt, was naturally highly anticipated. But the response to Killing Them Softly was generally muted, verging on mild disappointment. In particular, Dominik’s decision to set this adaptation of George V Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade at the time of the 2008 US presidential election was considered clumsy and lacking in finesse. As Dominik commented in an interview, his idea was for the microcosm of mob money problems to reflect the macrocosm of the global financial crisis. But did he have to laboriously sell this theme by repeatedly showing election coverage, even to the point of distracting the viewer from the dramatic thrust of scenes?
It’s a criticism I can relate to, but being forewarned can be something of a blessing in terms of expectations. The electioneering, be it on television or car radio, does feel excessive and intrusive during the opening sections of the film, and it returns in a monologue from Pitt’s Cogen in the final scene (which is, it has to be said, far from subtle). But, if this content was maintained throughout the rest of the film, it escaped my attention. It’s entirely possible, as I was consistently captivated by the filmmaking skills on display. With each new scene I was enthralled and dazzled, so confident is Dominik in what he sets out to do and the way in which he realises it. He is undoubtedly blessed with a fine complement of actors, some appearing for barely more than a couple of minutes (Sam Shepard), but it’s the craft he brings that impresses the most. He is as deft at eking out the laughs as the tension resulting from the threat of violence or the horror of the actual inflicting of it. As a result, I’m a lot more forgiving of some of his more obvious choices (one might even, occasionally, suggest that he tips overboard into the outright crass).
There’s little doubt that the film would have suffered hardly-at-all from the complete removal of wider parallels, and it’s likely that it would have been considerably enhanced if Dominik had honed his theme to make it subtler and less bludgeoning. His screenplay hews closely to the source novel, which only lends to weight to the sense that the political commentary is crude window dressing. Certainly, his major failures are all ones (the final speech aside) that appear to have been created, and therefore could have been resolved, in post-production.
It isn’t just the party politicking; it’s there in the music choices. Rightly, there was stunned disbelief that the director chose the Velvet Underground’s Heroin to accompany a character taking heroin. The musical cues generally follow the similar overt lines (a slow motion hit to the sound of Ketty Lester’s Love Letters). The visualisation of these scenes is so precise (in particular, the heroin scene, as one character attempts to extract vital information from another, who is drifting in and out of a state of narcotic bliss) that there is a slight twinge of “Oh, why did you have to go and do that?”
The premise is straightforward, which allows all the more room for character moments. Some of which are borderline Tarantino-esque vignettes. Three morons, Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Scoot McNairy) Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) rob a card game that is protected by the mob. The guy running the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), had once robbed the game but no one did anything about it because, well, they all like the guy. But this latest action spells trouble for the local economy, as confidence in the game collapses. Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is brought in by Driver (Richard Jenkins), a mid-level mob go-between, to find the guys responsible and mete out justice. Cogan’s view is that the only way to get the cash flowing again is to whack Trattman, even though he wasn’t involved this time, but the committee instructing Driver has cold feet.
Ben Mendelsohn referred to the script as a “comedy of manners” and it’s easy to see why. So much of Killing Them Softly concerns frustration of one character with another in attempting to reach his goal. Be it Cogan in his diligent attempts to put the local economy back on track (the cynical version of the Obama figure, if you will) in the face of ludicrous mob bureaucracy, or attempting to coax a fellow hit man to actually pucker up and do the job expected of him (James Gandolfini as Mickey), to Frankie gradually becoming aware that none of his accomplices have any more of a clue about keeping their deed quiet than he does.
While Dominik is far more interested in creating a believable environment, with characters that do not descend into authorial showboating, than Tarantino, there is a similar feel to the way both directors construct individual scenes as if they were mini-movies in themselves. The robbery of the card game is breathlessly tense (in spite of the ever-more intrusive television being on in the background), set up for something to go wrong as soon as inept Frankie and Russell done marigolds and brandish an ultra-sawn-off shotgun. Cogan’s encounter(s) with Mickey see him build from mild concern over the latter’s drinking and general aspect to decisive annoyance with the man who has left him holding the gun. Elsewhere, the beating of Trattman is horrifying and gruesome, yet also believably banal, as two characters who count themselves his friends become increasingly enraged that he won’t take it like a man (only compounded when Trattman makes a mess of one of their shoes).
Dominik has assembled a very fine cast, with Pitt presiding as the quite compere at the centre of events (although he doesn’t appear until 25 minutes into a 100 minute film). One might argue he doesn’t possess the grit or rawness of those around him, and thus how does he convince as the hard man hit man? But I’d argue this works for the character. He floats between worlds (and, as the protégé of the ailing Dillon (Sam Shepard), is looking to climb the “corporate” ladder) and plies his trade by knowing the best angles so doesn’t need to grandstand, even when interacting with the suited formality of Driver (whom he refers to as counsellor).
I’ll admit, though, I wasn’t entirely convinced he’d have come out of the encounter well if Mickey had flipped at him. It’s also generous role for a star to take; Gandolfino owns his scenes so completely that Pitt has little option but to allow him to steamroller on while we, the audience, share his increasing disquiet.
Cogan prefaces his involvement in sorting out this mess by telling Driver that he prefers the “kill them softly, from a distance”, approach; Mickey is called in because Cogan is disquieted by the messy emotionality of having to take out someone he knows. He is practical, reasonable, and not insensitive to the concerns of his victims (all the better to manoeuvre them into the best position to complete his work); as he says to Frankie, “They are all nice guys”.
But, that aside, Cogan’s focus is on what he can do to right the broader situation; he sees the bigger picture in this smaller world. Killing presents no concern per se. The frustrations of his mob bosses and their shortsightedness does. His ire is provoked by those who seek economic shortcuts, be it Kenny attempting to steal the tip he has just left (an amusing moment that defines the film more clearly than any amount of laborious extemporising), Mickey wining, dining and whoring on a free ticket or Driver’s bean-counting approach to paying what is due for a job done (cumulating with Cogan’s demand, “Now fuckin’ pay me!”). It is ironic that Dominik feels the need to embolden and signpost this with the tacked on period drapery, as the message is abundantly clear. Was he afraid that it would feel like a ‘70s film without it?
As the feckless losers who stage the robbery, Mendelsohn and McNairy are outstanding. They have at least as much screen time as Pitt and both etch out highly memorable characters. Frankie is the more tragic figure and McNairy sells his slack-jawed confidence, slowly transforming into palpable fear for his life. The only other work I recall McNairy in is Monsters, and I need to check out Argo and Promised Land. Mendelsohn has the plum, attention-grabbing part, a stream of coarse anecdotes and stoned semi-coherence. Russell is foul of mouth and appearance; you can almost smell his reek wafting from the screen. The comedy highlight sees him recount his dognapping experience with Kenny, featuring a canine and shit-filled car and a hilarious attempt to destroy said vehicle.
Jenkins elicits fewer belly laughs, but the comedy of corporate decision-making is no less amusing (“I gotta take them by the hand and I gotta walk them slowly through it like they're retarded children”). Part of the appeal here is the same mundanity Tarantino brings to his hit men in Pulp Fiction; it’s just a job, a means to make money, and a life holds no greater currency than the real thing.
Gandolfini’s shambolic sack of shit is his best big screen role in many a year (honestly, he’s not that been well-served; Virgil in True Romance is the most memorable part that comes to mind). It’s a little amusing that Mickey makes a show of how much more experienced than Cogan he is, when only two years separate the actors (one sense that Bradley moisturises a wee bit more).
Liotta, meanwhile, is awesome. Like Gandolfini he usually gets cast as a particular type, in roles undeserving of his talents. Here he reminds you just how great an actor he is, particularly when showing off uncharacteristic vulnerability, and you’re sorry when he exits scene left. Still, Liotta has about 10 films coming out in the next year, so there’s a good chance a couple of his roles will be worth catching.
Greigh Fraser’s cinematography is gorgeous and, with this Snow White and the Huntsman and Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 proved to be a great year for his CV. The editing is more of a thorny issue. Where it is in the service of the dramatic needs of the scene it is invariably excellent. Less so when it’s running with the presidential ticket.
And that’s ultimately what stymies an otherwise excellent crime movie. “America isn’t a country. It’s a business” is sound bite dialogue that sounds great in a trailer or on a poster but is heavy-handed within the narrative itself. Dominik’s next project, Blonde, concerns Marilyn Monroe. I’m dubious how much there is left to say about this screen icon, but any film the director attaches himself to is automatically a must-see. And, if it’s less than another five years until we see it, so much the better.