by Padraic Coffey
The first words we hear in Killing Them Softly are of America, spoken by then-Senator Barack Obama. It’s a deliberate move by Andrew Dominik, the film’s director, recalling the oft-quoted “I believe in America” monologue from the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Some of the greatest films about America, particularly those residing in the crime genre, have had a unique outsider perspective by virtue of a non-American filmmaker, such as Roman Polanksi’s Chinatown or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Now Dominik, an Australian, has thrown his hat into that ring with an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade. Killing Them Softly is less ambitious than those aforementioned titles, but still confidently delivers enough entertaining performances and memorable lines to hold the viewer’s attention throughout its brisk running length.
Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are two petty criminals, assigned the task of raiding a lucrative card game by Johnny ‘The Squirrel’ Amato (Vincent Curatola). Amato assumes the game’s organiser, Trattman (Ray Liotta), will bear the brunt of the fallout from the theft, Trattman having choreographed a similar robbery years before. However, the characters’ inability to hold their tongue – a common motif throughout the film – result in well-groomed, cold-blooded hit man Jackie (Brad Pitt) being contracted to eliminate them.
Dominik’s last film was 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a magnificent revisionist western which garnered superlative critical accolades but failed to recoup its budget at the box office. Killing Them Softly is not the equal of Jesse James, nor does it try to be, set against the backdrop of 2008’s US Presidential Election instead of 19th Century Missouri and lasting a mere 97 minutes as opposed to Jesse James’ 160. Dominik again casts Brad Pitt in a central role, eliciting one of the better performances from the actor in recent years. Pitt sashays from scene to scene sporting a leather jacket and chain-smoking in a manner which almost violates the laws on tobacco advertising. His tirade against Thomas Jefferson and the myth of America as an inclusive nation is one of the best written scenes of the year.
The casting of James Gandolfini as a washed up, alcoholic hired gun is slightly less successful, offering little more than a narrative cul-de-sac and an excuse for some uncomfortably misogynistic ramblings. The frequent insertion of news reports featuring George W. Bush and Barack Obama wittily draws comparison between politics and the bureaucratic nature of contemporary organised crime. When Jackie insists Trattman be killed, regardless of his culpability, to set an example for other criminals, intermediary Richard Jenkins recognises his motive as “the public angle”. Dominik shoots the film in an often flamboyant style. Glistening rainfall is present throughout, put to good use in an especially brutal beating sequence. The card game heist, on which the plot hinges, is extremely tense, Dominik utilising long takes of Liotta’s face, recognising his fate is sealed before the robbery is even completed.
Killing Them Softly does not re-write the crime film genre; rather, it evokes many of the best examples from the past few decades. Jenkins instructs Pitt that Liotta be roughed up without too much severity, just as Don Vito did in The Godfather‘s establishing sequence (Pitt quite rightly then mocks Jenkins’ insincere concern). An argument between Gandolfini and a supposedly ineffectual waiter recalls Goodfellas, while the fatalistic, darkly comic tone is reminiscent of Gary Fleder’s Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Another film to which Killing Them Softly owes a debt is Peter Yates’ under-seen The Friends of Eddie Coyle; unsurprising, given that film was also an adaptation of a George V. Higgins novel.
The violence in the film, relatively sparse but extremely vicious, could be described as ‘Tarantino-esque’. Like Tarantino, Dominik makes effective use of soundtrack choices throughout, despite occasionally slipping into cliché (The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ for a scene in which a character takes heroin? Really?). While Killing Them Softly is unlikely to become a modern classic on a par with The Assassination of Jesse James or many of the gangster films it references, it is nonetheless an enjoyable, if grimy, way to spend a couple of hours.