by Steve Habrat
I can’t really say that I’ve ever left a crime thriller with my stomach in a knot. I didn’t know it was possible for the crime thriller genre, which seems to be stuck on repeat and incapable of surprises, was fully capable of coming up with something that would truly shake me to my core. Well, along comes director Andrew Dominik’s black-as-night Killing Them Softly, a darkly comedic and politically charged look at the underbelly of society. Set against the economic meltdown of 2008 and hanging its head while John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush utter reassurances that America will get back on track, Killing Them Softly possess an icy apocalyptic feel as the camera pans across abandoned strip malls, rotting homes, and trigger happy ghettos. It certainly is the ugliest crime thriller ever made and a rabid dog of a movie, one that is furiously chewing through the leash that is containing it to the point where its gums are bleeding. Yet for all the savagery on display, Killing Them Softly has some chilling moments of rich character development, especially in Brad Pitt’s cool-as-a-cucumber Jackie Cogan, a hitman who seethes as McCain, Bush, and Obama reassure us all that America is one community. With an ensemble cast, a doomed atmosphere, razor sharp humor, and one of the coolest soundtracks around (a jaw-dropping beating is followed up by the cheery ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra), Killing Them Softly will make you feel like you’re sitting on a block of ice.
Set in 2008, Killing Them Softly picks up with three low-level thugs, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Played by Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Played by Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), robbing a mob controlled poker game that is watched over by hot shot gangster Markie Trattman (Played by Ray Liotta). It turns out that a few years earlier, Markie set up an inside job, robbed his own poker game, and then drunkenly admitted to doing it in front of a room full of gangsters. Since Markie is so well liked, the thugs decided to laugh it off and forgive him. Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell spot an opportunity to pull the robbery off in the hope that the mob will just blame it all on Markie. The plan appears to work for a small stretch of time but the mob isn’t so eager to let this one go. They bring in cool and calculating hitman Jackie Cogan (Played by Brad Pitt), who quickly determines that Markie wasn’t the one behind the robbery. He convinces the mob’s lawyer Driver (Played by Richard Jenkins) to allow him to bring in another bitter and unhinged hitman known as Mickey (Played by James Gandolfini) to help him smoke out the amateurs behind the job. When not dealing with personal demons, Jackie and Mickey slowly get to the bottom of the robbery and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is about as character driven as they come. There are drawn out moments of dialogue as these scumbags sit around in cluttered offices and smoky hotel rooms sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, shooting junk, and droning on about their failed love lives, why they detest feelings, and, yes, sexual intercourse with animals. It’s all very gross, pathetic, and profanity laced but Dominik cleverly writes it and he manages to get a few chuckles even if you are rolling your eyes in disgust. When the conversations turn to murder, things get really tense and prickly, with an unshakable sense of realism that almost shellshocks the viewer. Driver explains that they don’t want one of their guys hurt, just roughed up a little so he’ll talk. Pitt’s numbed Cogan laughs in his face and tells him the mob has gotten soft and then wonders allowed about what has happened to America. It’s in these moments that Killing Them Softly really takes hold of the viewer, churning the stomachs of those who thought they had been desensitized to this sort of material. Hell, I thought I was but I was scared stiff when Pitt explains that he hates killing up close because of the emotion. Trust me, it’s a conversation that settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach.
Then again, maybe it is Pitt who is just really good at selling this chillingly bleak cynicism. He is a man who stares out at a boarded up America wasting away in the shadow of an Obama “Change” billboard, blowing cigarette smoke at it almost like mockery. He faintly grins as President Bush nervously rambles on about the financial situation in America and ponders how it should be dealt with. Pitt’s Cogan is angry, fed up, and driven simply by money. He is so detached that he doesn’t even flinch when he stops his car in a rough part of town and overhears a group of street thugs arguing and fighting over territory. He doesn’t jump when gunshots ring out and one of them falls to the ground in a heap. He is almost like a plague in a muscle car; spreading his searing and sobering philosophy that America isn’t one community that is in this situation together, but just a business where everyone is on their own. He’s a cynical force with his hand out for the money he was promised and God help the person who doesn’t pay up. If he isn’t careful, he may wind up with a Best Actor Oscar for that earth shaking speech he gives in the closing moments of the film. It’s honestly a performance I couldn’t pull away from and that I won’t soon forget. Pitt is THAT good!
While Pitt steals the movie, the other performers do their best to keep up. Liotta is absolutely fantastic as Trattman, a man who is silky smooth during his poker games but a whimpering, bloody mess when he has the tar kicked and beaten out of him in a rainstorm. This particular sequence where two mob enforcers rough him up has to rank as one of the most violent and startlingly beatings I have ever seen in a motion picture (Those with a weak stomach may want to shut your eyes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). Jenkins is a brooding force as he tries to reason with Pitt’s Cogan. They share a number of conversations that point out that times are tough for mobsters too. Gandolfini shows up as the bitter Mickey, an overweight hitman who sucks down martinis and beers like he may never get another one in his life and verbally abuses hookers who shrug him off. He may be able to intimidate a waiter but is unable to stand up to his wife who is constantly threatening him with a divorce. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is all nervous gulps as he slowly realizes that he may not make it out of this situation alive and Ben Mendelsohn is on point as the sweaty junkie Russell, who is constantly stumbling around in a junk-induced haze.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is a barebones film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. It’s shockingly pessimistic as it wears its frustrations on its blood soaked sleeve. At times, the sound bites of Bush, McCain, and Obama are a bit distracting and heavy handed, leaving the viewer wishing for a much more subtle approach to the politics. The film also has some incredibly unnerving and ironic use of music. I think I was the only person in the audience who laughed when Dominik follows up Liotta’s savage beating with ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ and Pitt guns down a poor gangster to Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters.’ While I can see many being disappointed with Killing Them Softly, walking away wondering just what the big deal was, I just so rattled by the whole experience and how real it truly felt. It never felt sensationalized and it lacked the typical gloss that Hollywood applies to films as gritty as this. It doesn’t go down easy and I really admired that. Approach Killing Them Softly, one of the strongest motion pictures of 2012, with extreme caution.