A film review by Craig J. Koban December 6, 2012


2012, R, 97 mins.

Jackie: Brad Pitt / Markie: Ray Liotta / Frankie: Scoot McNairy / Mickey: James Gandolfini / Driver: Richard Jenkins / Russell: Ben Mendelsohn / Dillon: Sam Shepard

Directed and written by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel “Cogan's Trade” by George V. Higgins.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is two films in one, the first of which often works with a reasonable amount of modest success,  whereas the second all but suffocates and stilts the other.  On one hand, the film showcases a decidedly subdued, grungy, and deeply nihilistic look at low level crooks, mobsters, and one particular hitman.  On the other hand, director Andrew Dominik’s crime noir – adapted from the 1974 George V. Higgins novel COGAN’S TRADE – mixes in an cautionary theme of capitalism run amok and the financial crisis and U.S. presidential race of 2008, which seems mightily forced and labored at trying to draw meaningful parallels to the underlining organized crime tale.  

It’s interesting enough that Dominik and company use the mafia genre to comment on the past and current economic fragilities of America, but it’s just that drawing connections between the murderous thugs who seem desperate to make ends meat with the duplicitous nature of American politics rings as kind of patently obvious all throughout.  The level of fiscal dysfunction that befalls the mob enforcers in the film, I guess, mirrors the backstage and public squabbles that beset politicians in the wake of the '08 financial crisis that nearly unraveled a nation.  Yet, Dominik hammers home this cynical message with the subtlety of a bullet to the head.  There’s nothing at all soft-pedaled about the thematic sermonizing that KILLING THEM SOFTLY engages in, which has the negative consequence of distracting viewers away from the meatier and more immersive aspects of his crime story. 

KILLING THEM SOFTLY moves the original novel’s setting to post-Katrina New Orleans and introduces us to one specific “goodfella” and heist mastermind named Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), who decides to rob an illegal poker game run by a lowlife named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who has a dicey past of robbing his own poker game that was filled with other high rolling wiseguys.  Markie was interrogated for this past indiscretion, but he miraculously managed to convince them that he was innocent.  However, when his underground poker ring starts back up he makes the cardinal blunder of drunkenly admitting culpability to the past crime of robbing it.   Amazingly, the mob decides to give the poor sap a free pass. 



Squirrel, however, believes that if he knocks off an upcoming poker game then the mob will instantly think that it was Markie’s doing.  This leads to him hiring past crime associate, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his buddy, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a rather slimy, dirty, and unstable drug addict.  The pair of hired goons manage to knock off Markie’s poker game and make off with the loot, which makes the innocent Markie look like a wanted man in the mafia's eyes.  This allows Driver (Richard Jenkins) - a lawyer and spokesperson for the local mob - to call in and hire and expert hitman named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of all the loose ends.  Jackie decides that he will enlist another assassin, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to assist him with taking out Russell, Frankie, and Markie, but his mission gets complicated really fast when it appears that Mickey is battling sobriety. 

Some of the best sequences of the film are the most simple, which involve Jackie discussing various aspects of his mission with Driver and later Mickey.  Dominik, who’s known for being a foremost cinematic stylist, seems to have a sure hand for just letting his camera linger on two subjects as they discuss the tools of the trade and the best method of eliminating their respective targets.  Jackie’s philosophy on murder is echoed in the film’s title: he does not like to get too close or “touchy feely” with his targets, who usually get sick, cry for their mothers, or plead for their lives when they know death is near.  Rather, he prefers to “kill them softly” from afar or without them knowing, which is quicker, cleaner, and more definitive.  Initially, Driver wants Markie “roughed up”, but Jackie believes that’s cruel and unusual punishment; just blowing Markie away without warning, in his cold and calculated mind, would be more humane. 

Such a surprisingly talky mob picture requires solid performances, and KILLING THEM SOFTLY certainly contains them.  Brad Pitt is not required to stretch his thespian talents much in his role, but he makes Jackie unapologetically deadly, blunt, discreetly menacing, and strangely charming nonetheless.  Gandolfini, on the other hand, creates an even more perversely amoral and downtrodden individual in his one-time razor-sharp and skilled hitman that now is reduced to drowning in booze and his own alcoholism.  Ben Mendelsohn is more than convincing as his two-timing and frequently spaced-out junkie.  And there’s just something about every Richard Jenkins performance that feels so lived-in, natural, and credible at every turn.  His atypical casting in a film like this makes his scenes with Pitt’s Jackie bristle with an unpredictable and understated edge; you never really sure where Driver’s coming from or what he’ll order next. 

As he displayed in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (which also starred Pitt), Dominik still infuses KILLING ME SOFTLY with moments of brutal elegance in terms of its action sequences.  The film is more than frequently spellbinding at times on a visual level, as Dominik turns individual moments of gun violence and fisticuffs into ballets of blood-soaked liveliness.  One particular hit has Dominik use slow-motion to the point of being pornographic, as he shows festishistic shots of bullets being emptied from chambers, penetrating glass, and then finally entering and exiting their intended prey.  An extended scene where Liotta’s Markie gets mercilessly pummeled is arguably one of the most viscerally powerful and ingeniously staged beat-down sequences in a film in a long while.  Dominik, if anything, has a supreme command of the filmmaking craft. 

I just wished, though, that he had better intuition when it came to KILLING THEM SOFTLY's narrative momentum (at 90-plus minutes, the film feels painfully long at times).  There’s also not much of an overreaching plot to be had in the film, and – as stated – the way the script obsessively draws connective dots between Jackie’s trade and his growing disillusionment in it with moments of Barack Obama and John McCain pontificating on TVs in the background on the nature of capitalism and the shaky financial situation that is riddling America.  KILLING THEM SOFTLY has a lot going for it: solid and gritty performances, a spectacular visual sense, and sharp dialogue exchanges that give the film a strong, evocative, and unsettling sense of dynamism.  Yet, all of those good ingredients are somewhat done in by the script’s overly telegraphed analogies between American politics and organized crime, which are not subtle or soft.  At one key point Jackie blares out, “America is not a country, it’s a business.  Now fucking pay me!”  

See what I mean? 

  H O M E