2008 Presidential election, Andrew Dominik, based on a book, Ben Mendelsohn, best friends, Brad Pitt, Chopper, cinema, Cogan's Trade, crime as business, crime film, crime thriller, dramas, economic crisis, film reviews, films, financial collapse, George V. Higgens, Greig Fraser, heist films, heroin trafficking, heroin users, hired killers, hitman, illegal gambling, James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly, literary adaptation, Max Casella, mobsters, Movies, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, Scoot McNairy, set in 2008, Slaine, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Trevor Long, Vincent Curatola, writer-director
Like most established film genres, mob movies come in a rainbow assortment of various flavors: they can be pedal-to-the-metal thrillers, pensive character studies, dramas, comedies or any combination of the above. They can focus on the acts being committed, the people committing said acts or the authority figures trying to put said people behind bars. Mob movies might turn the gangsters into virtually mythical heroes or they might portray them as violent, bottom-feeding scum. They might be packed to the rafters with clever dialogue and insight or as reserved and serene as an undisturbed lake.
For the follow-up to his under-appreciated Western The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007), New Zealand writer-director Andrew Dominik takes aim at another literary adaptation: this time around, he puts his particular spin on George V. Higgens’ 1974 crime novel, Cogan’s Trade. By updating the action from the mid-’70s to the 2008 economic crisis/Presidential election, Dominik gives us yet another view of organized crime: the mob as a business entity. Like the white-collar figure-heads who pull the strings, Dominik gives us a view of organized crime that’s all about the bottom-line, cost-effectiveness, streamlining the organization and keeping the stockholders happy. You know…just like “Big Business” but with a lot more bullets and bloodshed.
The central plot to Killing Them Softly echoes Higgins’ novel fairly closely, albeit with that massive timeline shift from the ’70s to the ’00s. As in the novel, the main action involves ripping off a mob card game and pinning the blame on the schmuck who runs it. Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola aka The Sopranos’ Johnny Sacks) hires fresh-from-the-pen Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his incredibly unreliable former bunk mate/heroin addict, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to rip off the aforementioned card game. The plan is actually pretty solid, since they have the perfect patsy: Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the guy who runs the card game, actually orchestrated his own robbery of said game many years back and was never punished for his “crime.” If the game gets ripped off again, all eyes will be on Markie and, to quote the parlance, he’ll be “fish food.”
Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), the soft-spoken, philosophical hitman who’s been sent by mob enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard) and his underworld employers to get everything back on track. You see, when Trattman ripped off his game years ago, it put a temporary halt to the illegal card games, which ended up affecting the mob’s bottom line in a pretty major way. Jackie needs to restore order and reassure the “stockholders” that the games will be able to continue unimpeded.
As Jackie continues to meet with Driver (Richard Jenkins), the mob’s consigliori and his go-to man on this particular venture, Frankie, Russell and Johnny Amato try to keep their own heads above water, no easy feat given that Russell’s eagerly returned to the smack addiction that initially landed him in prison. For his part, though, Jackie is only concerned with one thing: getting rid of every person involved with the heist, including poor Markie. It’s nothing personal, though…this is nothing but business.
Reuniting with his Assassination of… star Brad Pitt, Dominik turns in a decent adaptation of Higgins’ novel (which was, itself, sort of a companion piece to his better known debut, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), albeit one which still manages to fall short of the source material. In many ways, Killing Them Softly reminded me of another recent film that managed to disappoint despite its high-octane cast: American Hustle (2013). As with that film, a handful of truly great performances and a generally intelligent script still add up to a slightly underwhelming whole. It’s not that Killing Them Softly is a bad film, mind you: it’s just one that never fully gets to live up to its potential.
Chalk this up to a few different factors. For one, Dominik’s decision to move the action from the ’70s to the ’00s makes perfect sense, on paper, yet is executed in a less than perfect manner. The intention behind this seems to be a parallel between the United States’ economic meltdown in 2008 and the similar economic meltdown experienced by the mob due to the recent heist. In reality, however, none of this pays off until the film’s very final scene: for the most part, this is just an excuse to endlessly reference said economic meltdown, as well as that year’s Presidential campaign. To that end, we get countless George W. Bush soundbites, as well as countless Barack Obama soundbites: it’s hard to recall a scene in the film that doesn’t feature a TV, radio or newspaper constantly talking about the financial crisis. It’s complete overkill and quite equitable to the equally odious tendency of some period pieces to over-rely on the slang and vernacular of whatever era they’re depicting. It becomes so much background noise and, to be frank, adds little to the overall narrative.
Killing Them Softly also has a tendency to relegate its strongest aspect, Brad Pitt’s excellent performance as Cogan, to the back burner in favor of an increased emphasis on the travails of Frankie and Russell. As should be fairly obvious, that’s not exactly the best move: Pitt is a constantly magnetic presence whenever he’s onscreen, whereas the normally reliable McNairy and Mendelsohn turn in performances that tend to grate on the nerves. With McNairy’s “Bahston” accent and Mendelsohn’s Aussie inflection fighting each other for dominance, too much of Killing Them Softly comes across like an acting workshop where the performers have been given scenarios to explore: “You guys are low-level crooks…go!” Add to this McNairy’s wishy-washy characterization and the fact that Mendelsohn just turns in one of his patented “slovenly cretin” roles (the differences between his character here and the one he played in TV’s Bloodline, for example, are so minute as to be negligible) and we’re left with a couple of protagonists who just aren’t particularly interesting.
This reliance on past performances actually affects more of the film than just McNairy and Mendelsohn. In one of his last few roles, James Gandolfini’s take on hard-drinking hitman “New York” Mickey come across like a more exhausted Tony Soprano, while Sopranos co-star Curatola’s Johnny Amato is an almost exact replica of his Johnny Sacks character: the levels of meta are strong with this one. Throw in Liotta doing yet another sad-sack gangster and you have lots of characters who seem overly familiar, even though we’ve just met them.
In truth, all of the films best scenes belong to Pitt and Richard Jenkins: while the rest of the film flops between sober crime thriller and slightly sardonic black comedy, only the interplay between Jackie and Driver manages to find the perfect combination of both. At their best, these scenes remind of the Coen Brothers’ innate grasp on “extraordinary characters doing ordinary things” and the film could certainly have benefited from more of them. It’s little surprise, then, that the highly effective finale belongs solely to Pitt and Jenkins: the two are always the film’s high-water mark, so handing them the keys, at the end, only makes sense.
It’s easy to imagine a slightly different take on this material, one that keeps the updated time-frame but puts the emphasis back on Jackie (the original novel, after all, is called Cogan’s Trade for a reason). There’s plenty of rich material to be mined as far as the parallel between corporate business models and the Mafia goes but Dominik’s script never goes any deeper than the point made in Pitt’s closing speech: America isn’t a country, it’s a business. As a character, Jackie is a pretty great one: he’s charismatic, thoughtful, smart, eloquent, appropriately cold-blooded yet with a firmly established internal compass that always keeps him pointed towards true north.
When Frankie whines to Jackie that Johnny Amato isn’t a “bad guy” and doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him, Jackie’s response is honest, perfectly calibrated and delivered without a hint of sarcasm: “None of ’em are…they’re all nice guys, kid.” Nothing about killing people is personal to Jackie (the title comes from his preference to kill from a distance aka “killing them softly): it’s all just part of his job, no more, no less.
This, of course, is the ultimate message that Dominik is getting at: when you break everything down, it’s all just business. Lots of characters and moments reiterate this talking point, over the course of the film, but no one hammers it home quite as well as Jackie. Pity, then, that Dominik didn’t give him more of the reins: as a whole, the film could have used a lot more of his inherent ability to knock ’em dead, softly or otherwise.