Saturday, December 1, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Gangster Economics: Shoot Early, Deliberate Earlier

Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in Andrew Dominik's crime drama "Killing Them Softly".
The Weinstein Company


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Killing Them Softly" is the kind of gangster film very comfortable in its skin, a confident and assured entry in the genre.  Directed by Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford") and based on George Higgins' book about three dopey guys who rob a crime syndicate during harsh economic times, the film dovetails the 2008 financial crisis and recession with the talkative, contemplative gangsters trying to protect their tenuous economic foundation.

Brad Pitt uses his movie star twinkle to inject life and casual cool into Jackie Cogan, a seasoned hit man who makes clean hits for his mob boss.  No muss, no fuss.  Jackie is the kind whose killings are generally blunt and precise, though he likes to bring warmth and conversation to some of his targets before erasing them.  Ever cynical, Jackie does his deadly work in service of the almighty dollar.  He views himself as more honest than politicians who talk gloweringly about unity and the need to stabilize the volatile markets.  In every way those politicians are the rich gangsters (i.e. Hank Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO and U.S. treasury secretary) who rob America blind without pulling a trigger.  Jackie's trade is somehow more honest if exponentially bloodier.

Jackie is after two bandits in over their heads (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) after robbing Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) and his crew at gunpoint.  A mob "intermediary" (Richard Jenkins) has coolly bantered and bartered the feasibility of one hit man or two to execute the job on the foolhardy bandits.  These, you see, are hard times.  Markie, a sad eyed, gentler kind of malfeasant insists he's clean and not behind the robbery.  A boozing, sex-crazed old-time hit man (a superb James Gandolfini) is recruited to help.  Mr. Gandolfini is priceless in one particular scene with Mr. Pitt that marks one of several well-dialogued and acted moments making "Killing Them Softly" a memorable, enjoyable gem.

The title "Killing Them Softly" may alert one to Roberta Flack's iconic song "Killing Him Softly".  The film may apply to the philosophy Jackie adheres to, but Mr. Domenik's film could just as well apply to the rhetoric of politicians: the idealistic flourishes that soothe the masses and finesse situations.  In one sense Markie comes from that same school: calculating and persuasive though well-meaning.  Jackie though, is wiser.  He possesses real killer instinct.

Mr. Domenik is a director who has always enjoyed visual flair in his films.  Though style occasionally overstays its welcome in "Killing Them Softly", it is employed with the same fanfare, panache and stagecraft utilized for political campaign speeches.  And that's the point: there's long been a celebration in America of gangsters, and Mr. Pitt, a beloved star who's also a more than halfway decent actor, embodies the qualities in Jackie that make the character admirable in the same way John Gotti or John Dillinger were beloved in their day by large swaths of the American public.  There's less a romanticism however, with the gangsters in "Killing Them Softly" than there is with finality: that abrupt end -- stylized in some scenes, and not in others -- that upgrades this film from merely good to great.

The violence here isn't gratuitous as much as it is pure and clear, and the words spoken in this crime film rather than its deadly weapons, are to be heeded.  The casting of "Killing Them Softly" is far from accident too, as Mr. Liotta, in a rare nice-guy gangster role that is opposite his laughing brute Henry Hill of "GoodFellas", Mr. Gandolfini of "Sopranos" lore, and Mr. Mendelsohn, excellent in the fine crime family film "Animal Kingdom", all play softer or more washed up sides of themselves here, and are great doing so.  Mr. Pitt plays a sharper character than the outlaw Jesse James in Mr. Domenik's last film.

Clarity makes "Killing Them Softly" the kind of film that while fierce in its verbal and physical jabs, is an embraceable treat for audiences who like a little something different.  There's a semi-joking feel to Mr. Domenik's film that makes it digestible, even charitable in its entertainment value.  The film is like a Valentine that lulls you into seduction without having to try excessively to win your love.  "Killing Them Softly" is a film I greatly enjoyed, and look forward to seeing again soon.

Also with: Vincent Curatola, Sam Shepard, Trevor Long, Max Casella, Linara Washington.

"Killing Them Softly" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 37 minutes.  

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