An adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly anatomizes a self-policing underground economy of junkies, killers and administrators to indict a present-day mainstream world—the world into which the film is being released by Harvey Weinstein, heralded by misleadingly generic TV adverts wedged into halftime breaks, by suggesting that the criminal satellite economy and the “straight” superstructure are functionally the same. Dominik's last film, the woefully underseen The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, also explored the distinctly American mirroring between outlaw life and “normal” business; while that film was so painterly as to almost turn its subject into an abstraction, Killing Them Softly leaves no question as to its “real” reason for being. It's a movie that shows—and then tells, tells and tells again, its vibrant conjuring of contemporary cynicism felled by Dominik's lack of faith in his audience's ability to connect thematic dots.
This hyper-violent crime drama is bookended by excerpts from real speeches given in 2008 by Barack Obama. The film's opening credits play over audio from candidate Obama's Democratic National Convention speech, his lofty words about the promise and potential of America contrasted with artfully exaggerated images encapsulating the America of the financial crisis that has backdropped the Obama era. Ex-con Frankie (Scoot McNairy) emerges into a tornado of trash swirling around city streets dominated by burned-out buildings, weed-strewn empty lots, and side-by-side campaign billboards advertising Obama and John McCain. In the film's final scene, Obama's words are contested by Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, on killer-cool autopilot), a hit man who strives to be the very definition of “professional.” He scoffs at the president-elect's evocation of the American dream, declaring, “America isn't a country; it's just a business.” The opening establishes the movie's romantic aestheticization of wasteland America, its ground-level ruin not so much divided as disconnected from both sets of suits on high battling each other for the position of figurehead. The final scene puts the movie's thesis into the mouth of a star whose mythic power would threaten to dwarf that of any American president. Whom are you going to believe?
Other than deliver the punch line, Pitt doesn't have a whole lot to do in this movie. Cogan enters half an hour in, after baby-faced Frankie and his junkie prison buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) have successfully held up a poker game managed by Markie (Ray Liotta). Cogan is hired by a mob administrator, played by Richard Jenkins, to orchestrate the killings necessary to restore confidence in the underground gambling economy. It's a small, incestuous town, and Cogan tries to not kill anyone face to face he knows (the resemblance of his policy of “killing them softly, from a distance” to drone warfare is among the film's few subtle allusions), so he insists on subcontracting a gunman from New York, Mickey (James Gandolfini). But getting the expense approved won't be easy; Jenkins' unnamed character complains there are “no decision makers” among his bosses, just “total corporate mentality.” Cogan sighs, “This country is fucked.”
I've seen Killing Them Softly twice, and while it certainly felt like more of a period piece a few days after Obama's re-election than it did back in May at Cannes, both times, midscreening, I wondered how the movie would play with the sound off. From that opening scene, Dominik has little trouble telling his story visually with depth and potency. But his audio choices are, to use the technical term, absolutely shit. As the crooks bop between backroom card games, bus-depot drop-offs and brutal killings, everywhere they go, a TV or a radio injects real newscasts and talk-radio debates from fall 2008. Dominik's use of music is hardly more subtle, whether it be American standards (“It's Only a Paper Moon,” “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”) chosen for their “ironic” impact or the Velvet Underground's “Heroin,” chosen to play over a scene of characters shooting heroin.
When not preoccupied with this kind of dumbass bell ringing, Dominik effectively sketches the pervasively toxic misogyny of this slice of post-history. There is one woman onscreen, and she is a hooker treated ostentatiously badly by Gandolfini's gluttonous, incompetent contractor. Gandolfini only appears in two scenes, but he gives the film's best performance as a man drowning in masculine/midlife crisis to the point of self-pitying, sentimental mooning over a “piece of ass” from his past. Mickey's brand of dick-sick poetry plays against another character's assessment of a lady in his life: “You probably wouldn't want to rape her, but all the plumbing works fine.” This talk is strange, florid, disgusting . . . and really not all that different from the gender stuff dredged up by the just-concluded election cycle. The film reflects a real, right-now hatred of women that is not retrograde so much as totally delusional, a side effect of a dangerously distorted worldview that itself might be the endgame of the “total corporate mentality.” The biggest disappointment of Killing Them Softly is that such suggestions about said mentality, which add up to more than the sum of their parts, are far outnumbered by airless tabulations of criminal/corporate equivalency.
This review appeared in print as “Making a Killing in Obama's America: A violent new drama argues crime is just businesss.”