Five years ago, New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik sought to explode the myth of the noble outlaw in his admirable, but dramatically uneven Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Now he's back to expose the seedy truth behind another figure of American legend: the noble gangster. Based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik's new film Killing Them Softly relocates the 1974 Boston-set crime story to New Orleans circa September 2008, right after the historic financial meltdown that left the United States reeling. The effects of that crisis are heard -- via a steady stream of news reports that blare from TV screens and talk radio stations -- and felt throughout the movie, which presents depicts organized crime as a soulless racket, populated by profit-minded lowlifes who are only separated from the similarly unscrupulous Wall Street fat cats by their dressed-down wardrobe. Forget the old canard about "honor amongst thieves" -- for many of the men who populate Killing Them Softly, honor is a thing that can easily be sold for the right price.
Dominik sets the stage for his artfully de-glammed depiction of the criminal underworld from the first scene, which features extremely small-time hoodlums Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) meeting in the dingy backroom of a dry cleaning establishment owned and operated by would-be kingpin Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) -- who has adopted the preposterous nom de crime "The Squirrel" -- to discuss a proposed heist. There's a high-stakes card game going down in a few nights that's being organized and overseen by low-rung mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who secretly hired a bunch of goons to rip of his own card game a few years back. When he eventually 'fessed up to the crime, the Mob opted to forgive and forget, writing it off as a silly prank. That history is what makes him the perfect mark -- if his game gets hit a second time, his bosses won't be laughing and, more importantly, they won't go looking for other suspects. So Frankie and Russell agree to the Squirrel's modest proposal and pull off the job in a superb set-piece that, again, doesn't play by the traditional heist movie rules in the way it emphasizes the ordinariness of their surroundings, as well as their clumsiness as robbers. This isn't some kind of grand Ocean's Eleven-style smoke-and-mirrors trick; it's a messy, ugly business transaction carried out by two desperate men.
As the Squirrel predicted, the Mob is quick to make Markie the fall guy for the robbery and they bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to oversee the clean-up operation with their unnamed intermediary (Richard Jenkins). Although he's the colleague of a respected enforcer (Sam Shepard), who is currently out of action due to illness, Jackie makes it clear that he has his own way of doing business, one that doesn't allow for outmoded traditions like loyalty and nobility. That's why he recommends putting Markie six feet under right away, a suggestion that his employers -- who still have some lingering affection for the poor sap -- balk at, opting for a routine beating instead. (Although, the way that Jackie's hired hands carry out said beating turns out to be anything but routine. It's one of the most graphic and disturbing onscreen pummelings in recent memory.) Markie maintains his innocence even as he's turned into a bloody pulp, but Jackie continues to lobby for his death, even after one of his sources clues him into the fact that a loudmouth named Russell is bragging about having pulled off a big score. In no time at all, Cogan acquires the names and locations of the two robbers, plus the Squirrel, and recruits his old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him carry out at least one or two of the hits, both as a favor to a friend in need and as a way to avoid having to get his hands dirty. Because, you see, he doesn't like killings that may turn personal; he needs to gun his targets down from afar, treating them as transactions in his ledger rather than flesh-and-blood people.
Unfortunately for Jackie, it turns out that his buddy Mickey's job performance has taken a significant hit since they worked together last. When he turns up in New Orleans, he's a nasty drunk more interested in holing up in his hotel room with a steady supply of liquor and prostitutes than in putting a bullet in someone's brain. Although he only appears in two scenes -- both of which are quite lengthy, at least -- Gandolfini's performance is pretty remarkable, in the way it plays off his old Tony Soprano persona while also wallowing in a kind of bitterness and regret that Tony rarely allowed himself to feel. With his hired gun essentially worthless, Cogan is forced to leave the boss's chair, roll up his sleeves and do the requisite grunt work. This sets the stage for one of the year's finest -- and funniest -- finales, an extended dialogue sequence where Cogan and his Mob connection settle up and the full extent of his hard-nosed approach to business is revealed. Killing Them Softly is all but certain to get ignored come awards time, but personally I'd nominate it for "Best Punchline," because Pitt's last line of dialogue is a thing of pure beauty, razor sharp and darkly hilarious.
It's also not exactly subtle, which, to be honest, is keeping in spirit with the rest of the movie. Perhaps concerned that the reason The Assassination of Jesse James failed is because audiences didn't get it, Dominik goes out of his way to explain exactly what Killing Them Softly is about. (Seriously, if you still don't understand it when the credits roll, that's entirely on you. Dominik makes the larger themes and ideas -- the Mob is just another corporation, the bottom line is all that matters to an independent businessman, workers who don't meet their goals can and should be fired and/or fired upon -- behind the movie so clear that he's practically drawing a road map onscreen.) The on-the-noseness of the proceedings would be profoundly irritating if the film's style wasn't so compelling and the performances so lived-in. The leanness of the narrative is another boon as well; with Jesse James, Dominik frequently got lost in the film's expansive 160-minute runtime. Killing Them Softly, on the other hand, is tight as a drum at a little over an hour-and-a-half. The director also makes better use of his Jesse James star Pitt, who is always a more interesting actor when he gets to show off a mean streak instead of playing some kind of gauzy ideal, as he did in his earlier collaboration with Dominik. Jackie Cogan is essentially Pitt's version of Gordon Gekko, transplanted from Wall Street and set down in the sweaty, seedy Louisiana. He may carry a sawed-off shotgun instead of a briefcase, but he still lives by the same "greed is good" mantra.
As much as I enjoyed Killing Me Softly and would rank it amongst the fall's finest offerings (too bad nobody will see it -- the studio seems to be going out of its way to ensure that moviegoers are unaware of its existence), I do have one significant quibble with the movie: although Dominik spends much of the film draining the glamor out of the gangster lifestyle, he can't resist the urge to get his Scorsese on in several of the movie's more violent sequences, offering up some stylized bits of bloodletting that feel out of step with the rest of the picture. The most blatant example of this is a scene depicting a drive-by shooting that's filmed in balletic slow motion, with the bullets flying whizzing the air and passing through target's skull in extreme close-up. It's a terrific visual stunt (though obviously not for the faint of heart), but that's all it is -- a stunt. After setting out to illustrate just how uncool the life of a gangster is, Dominik gives us a sequence that seems to exist purely for its cool factor. It's a rare, but obvious false note in a movie that's otherwise conducted with style and grace.
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