Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in “Killing Them Softly”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

In 2008, the American economy is so bad that even hit men have to take a hit … financially, that is. Perhaps they’d better cut down on target practice at the shooting range because, after all, bullets don’t grow on trees.

Blaring the theme of a faltering economy that’s endemic to every facet of American life, Killing Them Softly opens up on a scrawny ex-con (Scoot McNairy’s Frankie) wearing a thin jacket, hunching over from the cold. Maybe if that idealistic senator from Chicago with the strange name wins the 2008 presidential election, Frankie will be able to afford a better, warmer coat.

At the start, we think that writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is simply setting up a particular timeframe. But after the first fistful of references, the air thick with the conflagration of Wall Street, it’s obvious that Dominik is pitching old-school gangster tradition against an inescapable new-school frugality. In a scene in which two men haggle over discounted prices on a hit in “these times,” with the idea that some out-of-town talent will have to deal with flying coach, Dominik’s dialogue is, shall we say, right on the money.

As is often the case in mangled heist scenarios, “The Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola, most known for his Johnny Sack in The Sopranos) cooks up a win-win scheme. Or so he thinks. He hires two bumbling ex-cons (Frankie and Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell) to rob a high-rolling poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Since Trattman once staged his own robbery years before, Squirrel figures that Trattman will get blamed again, and he and his two bumblers will make out like bandits. In their dreams.

With Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” underscoring his entrance, Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan rides into town to orchestrate a swift punishment. Dressed in hipster black, sporting retro cool sideburns, Jackie may be a chief enforcer, but reason and a higher sense of decency prevails. Sure, he’s in the killing business … but not in the hurting business. Why beat the bejesus out of a guy, make him go through all sorts of pain in the hospital, just to ultimately waste him? Why shoot someone at close range, bringing that victim untold panic and distress, when (hearkening to the movie’s title), you can choose to kill them softly? Gently? Without bringing any additional fuss to either the marksman or the mark? He’s got a heart of gold, that Jackie.

Richard Jenkins as Driver in “Killing Me Softly”

However, in 2008, it’s not business as usual. Jackie finds himself dealing with punctilious attorney/middle manager Driver (Richard Jenkins) who complains incessantly about the empty suits that he has to answer to. The endless meetings, the waffling, the penny pinching … it’s enough to drive a man back to a desk job. Wait. It is a desk job.

The script is shot through with delicious, character-specific humor. Mendelsohn (brilliant as the feared family kingpin in Animal Kingdom), plays a sweaty drug addict who runs an underground dog breeding business on the side, just so he can make enough bucks to fund his dream job of becoming a drug dealer. Though he swears he doesn’t mess around with the dogs, he knows for a fact that if someone physically approaches them, the animals will most definitely nip, “… from what I hear.” In another instance, the sad sack enforcer from out of town (James Gandolfini’s Mickey) bemoans the state of his fragile marriage on the one hand … but orders up call girls by the dozen on the other. When Jackie objects about the fact that for three days, all Mickey has done is drink and screw, the besotted Lothario shrugs his shoulders, admitting with a grin, “It’s my hobby.”

For his part, when Jackie hears politicians bloviate over the air waves, he will predict their very next sentence. Getting it dead right, he shakes his head and rolls his eyes in a slyly unstated “I told you so.” It’s a treat to see him working in delicious counterpoint to Jenkins and Gandolfini, generously sharing the screen. Pitt’s Jackie achieves the perfect mix of a quirky humanity and relaxed humor, his unquestionable menace percolating just below the surface.

The film zips along with a smart script, clever humor and unique characters nodding to the kind of morally challenged zanies who populate the lighter side of the hit man movie (think Pulp Fiction and Prizzi’s Honor). While the underlying device of the financial crisis grows somewhat heavy-handed, there’s no reason to shoot anyone over it. That is, unless that someone deserves it.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Roberta Flack ballads: 4

Release date: November 30, 2012
Written and Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by: George V. Higgins
Cast: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard
Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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