director Andrew Dominik
It’s a very rare occasion that I find myself watching a movie on DVD and regretting that I didn’t manage to see it in the theater when it was out. Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is one that I should have seen on the big screen.
I had planned to, being a particular fan of his The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Chopper (2000), the only reason I can say is that it flew through our local cinemas in less than two weeks. It also didn’t get any love at the Academy Awards though a lot of critics liked it. For my money, it’s certainly one of last year’s best films, though having just seen it now, it would end up on my current “best of” list. These are exactly the kind of films that aren’t well enough appreciated in their time, but will go on to be admired and perhaps studied in the future as history and retrospect catch up with them.
Adapted from a 1970’s crime novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, it’s pulp fiction at heart. It’s a caper story, of sorts, with two lowlife bottom feeder criminals knocking over a card game and trying to get away with it. They think that they can get away with it because operator Markie (Ray Liotta) had knocked over his own card game once in the past, and while he more or less got away with it, he foolishly let on that he had been behind it, so now any time his card game gets jacked, the perception would be that he did it or was behind it, so the lowlifes think they got a clever deal.
Unfortunately, this is the mob, and they have guys like Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who get called in to clean up such messes. And cleaning up such messes basically means killing everybody.
What’s ingenious on Dominik’s part is his setting the film in New Orleans of 2008, the backdrop being played out on television screens all over is the presidential race, Obama’s hope, McCain’s promises, and the hollow echoing words of George W. Bush about the financial crisis that was imploding all around.
It’s not just the background, though. This criminal operation, from the petty thieves, hypocritical wise guys, bloodless middle men, invisible leaders are all a metaphor for the government and financial industries that are burning all around. Everyone is complicit. Everyone is guilty. And Brad Pitt, the avenging angel, is the cynical but blunt and brutal voice of reason: “Everyone is going to die.” And most likely hordes of rats are ready to take their place.
Richard Jenkins plays Driver, the squeamish middle man giving Pitt his orders. He’s so clearly business, doesn’t like to speak the realities of murdering people. Pitt tells him, in a voice of humanity, that torturing Markie is inhumane. The best thing to be done is to just kill him nice and clean and put him out of his misery. He has to die whether he is guilty or not because everyone will think he’s guilty because of his prior crime.
Cogan likes to “kill them softly”, from a distance, not get too personal, so when it comes to killing someone he knows and who will know he’s coming to kill them, he asks for another hit man to come in. This is Mickey (James Gandolfini), a whoring, crass drunk who can’t sober up long enough to do anything. Jenkins quibbles over the extra $15K for this additional outside help. He has to get approval. It’s business. Not in the conference room, but in a car under a bridge.
Dominik sees no “hope” in any of the voices on the televisions. And Pitt clarifies this perspective in the film’s final scene, as Obama wins the election and makes his speech. It doesn’t matter who is in charge. It’s all gone to hell and there is no getting back. It really rang of the complex realities of the financial meltdown as spelled out in the great documentary Inside Job (2010). All of the institutions are fucked. They have been for a long time (if not always), with the banks, the accreditation institutions, the university professors and the institutions that they represent, all through Wall Street and all though the White House, the Senate, everywhere.
Those small time crooks. Just chumps. Just chum.
Like his other films, Killing Them Softly begs for multiple viewings. Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it’s not epic and slow. Rather, it’s quick-paced and relatively terse. I have to hand it to Brad Pitt. He’s found a director who uses him very, very well and he’s making movies that will have meaning and staying power for years to come.