Killing Them Softly is disquieting and quietly brilliant, writes Kellie Morrissey.
To describe Killing Them Softly in terms of its component parts is to ruin it, really – hitmen? Brad Pitt? Knocked-over card games? Tarantino comparisons? It sounds cheesy, it sounds bombastic, it sounds positively mob-like – with Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini in supporting parts, you better believe it is. But this is a film that is much quieter than these individual parts may suggest, a film that is unassuming in its brutality, its violence – but it’s also a film with a bubbling subtext far deeper than its 97 minutes usually allows for. Like Andrew Dominik’s other films, Chopper and the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly is an impressive and impressing piece of film-making.
Adapted from the 1974 George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly follows several threads of storyline which all intertwine among the central plot point – a card game which is held up by gunmen. These gunmen are the frankly pathetic Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy), put up to the job by Johnny (Vince Curatola) who has heard that the owner of the game, Markie (Liotta) once ‘threw over’ his own game and kept the winnings. Common knowledge, now, really – and if it happens again, the blame will surely be pinned squarely on Markie. It is, but with some complications, and the aftermath of the heist sees hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) called in to clear up the debris.
Pitt’s entrance is marked ominously by Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”, and most reviews you read of the movie will rave about his performance, but Pitt, in my opinion, is not the best thing about Killing Them Softly – it’s Gandolfini and his supporting part as Mickey, a once-great hitman who has now degenerated in alcoholic slovenliness in the face of a failing marriage and unrequited love for a prostitute down south. Gandolfini is dangerous, all glinting eyes – or are those tears? – and alcoholic rage. In a movie which revels in the brilliance of its bit parts, his is the standout.
The use of the radio is also innovative – Higgins’ novel has been updated to 2008, and our characters’ doings are framed constantly by sound snippets from Obama, Bush and McCain focusing on the burgeoning financial crisis. The acting is sublime – McNairy and Mendelsohn are joyous as the two-bit henchmen who carry off the heist, but the sound editing and the cinematography are what won me over completely here. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch at times – the opening credits, with the harsh cutting in-and-out of a victory speech of Obama’s, are particularly memorable, as are the scenes shot in slow motion as Russell and Frankie shoot up. The violence is grim and brutal and very real – not in the hyper-realistic way of Dredd but, again, in the acting – Ray Liotta sure can take a punch, even at his age.
But what of the subtext? The radio snippets speaking of economic collapse frame the film, so here we have corruption endemic – at a national level, and right down here in the pondlife of card games and mobsters. We have people paying for things which they didn’t cause and which are beyond their control – with money and with their lives. Is it trying to make a statement? I don’t think so, though the last lingering words certainly seem to push towards a certain agenda. Rather, though, it is what it is – a story and not so much a parable. Quiet, dangerous and darkly comic despite its cast of sadsacks. Verdict: highly recommended.