Killing Them Softly is not your average crime film. It is a delicate, multi-tiered, unsubtle, and quietly powerful crime drama about the perception of the mob world, the interactions and transactions that occur within that world and the effects on them by the economy. Based on the classic crime novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film is directed with an eye for detail, character, story and vision by Andrew Dominik, in his third only film, Killing Them Softly sets a new standard for realism in crime films. This film is about as bare bones realistic as you can get it, especially during it’s dialogue scenes and in the ways the violence is handled. The plot of the film isn’t a complex web of intricate twists and turns leading up to an ultra-violent shootout, or any number of cliched endings, in fact it’s rather simple, which works in its favour.
Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), a local career criminal, hires the meek Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to knock over the second only illegal poker game held by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). 4 years earlier when Markie held his first game, he set it up an inside job to have the game robbed. Dillon, an enforcer (Sam Shepard in an-all-to-brief cameo) is sent to interrogate Markie who gives nothing until he drunkenly confesses his involvement in the heist and is subsequently given a pass, because everyone loves Markie. The heist goes off without a hitch, and the trio part ways. Mafia hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to replace the mortally wounded Dillon and find out who robbed the game under the guidance of middleman Driver (Richard Jenkins), eventually finding out the culprits. Jackie and Driver agree to kill all three men plus the innocent Markie killed, so public confidence in the safety of the games can be revived.
Brad Pitt is at the top of his game here, delivering one of his performances in years as the ice cold Jackie. Jackie likes to “kill them softly, from a distance.” to avoid the embarrassment that comes with killing someone intimately, and refuses to kill anyone he knows personally, which leads to Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hitman from New York, being hired to kill one of the targets. Brad looks like he walked out of a crime thriller from the 70’s with his leather jacket, slicked back hair, aviators and a cigarette always on hand. Jackie is cold, cynical, and brimming with an unsettling ferocity about him, and Brad Plays it up well. The rest of the cast is top notch, especially Gandoflini as Mickey, who we later find out is a prostitute loving, past his prime alcoholic, a narrow shade of the great hitman he once was. He’s brilliant here, showing us a damaged soul desperately in need of fixing, and tinkering on slowly towards the edge of darkness.
The whole film feels as real as the air in our lungs, right from the first frames that flicker between Obama speaking, the opening titles and Frankie walking down the street. None of the dialogue feels forced, staged or written, it all has a very real, genuine, authentic quality that helps raise this above other films of the genre. Some of the lines are so rich, powerful, cool or funny that people will be still quoting them 30 years from now. They’re classics already. The sound and picture quality is astounding. I saw this in the theatre equivalent to an HDTV and it was impeccable. You could hear the quietest things in the film, from individual drops of water dripping during the opening of the heist scene, to the sound of papers ruffling in the wind. The louder effects; an explosion and about a dozen gunshots, were very loud and delivered the appropriate impact that director Andrew Dominik was undoubtably aiming for. There’s a political message in the film, which takes place during the 2008 presidential election, and it’s about the perception of the mob through the transactions and interactions of the criminals we encounter contrasted by speeches from Obama and George W. Bush talking about the economy, togetherness and social responsibility. It’s not exactly subtle as there are quite a few scenes where they’re plastered on the TV or playing on the radio, but it’s not overwhelming. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a character all its own, often times moving with objects like doors, the interiors of cars, or tracking behind a character as if another person was right behind them watching their every move.
The violence in this film is brutal, bloody and as graphically realistic as anything I’ve ever seen committed to film, which for some might be too much to take. A beating is delivered without music, just the sound of talking, punches, kicks and rain falling as the victim bleeds, whines, cries and even pukes on one of his attackers shoes. A man is shot in beautiful slow motion, and another is literally killed softly, from a distance. It all feels real, and authentic, never straying into the realm of over-the-top and unrealistic. Much like the film itself, the violence quietly brims an undying tension leading up to the acts themselves that will leave you breathless in their wake. This is a tough, realistic view of the mob world and the sharp contrast it bears to the a failing economy and the government trying to overhaul it. And with such a powerful, double-edged last line, this will be one crime film we won’t soon forget.
“America’s not a country, it’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me!”