Surprisingly, Andrew Dominik‘s Killing Them Softly isn’t your father’s tough-talkin’ George V. Higgins gritty crime pic. Well, it is but it persistently and rather curiously pushes concurrent political commentary about the ’08 financial collapse, Obama, hope, cynicism, ruthlessness and American greed.
Indiewire’s Eric Kohn wrote that Softly, like Dominik’s five-year-old The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, is a “tone poem that uses narrative to prop up various attitudes and moods,” but this time with a greater emphasis on the polemic. Well put.
The plot is basically about Brad Pitt‘s Jackie Cogan, a hard-as-nails hitman, being hired to rub out a few guys involved in the robbing of a Boston poker game, as well as an unlucky rackets guy (Ray Liotta) who didn’t really do anything but tough shit — he’s on the list regardless. And yet the first 25% to 30% of the film is Pitt-less, focusing on the perps and their grubby, slip-shod realm.
Cogan, a down-to-business, cut-the-shit assassin, is about doing the job, period. Rationality, efficiency, no personal issues or baggage — an exemplar, in a sense, of “clean living,” which is what Dominik, during the just-finished press conference and somewhat flippantly, said the film is partly espousing.
Above all Cogan is no believer in community and equality and Barack Obama’s high-falutin’ talk about sharing and “we’re all in this together.” Eff that.
Killing Them Softly, then, is a fairly novel thing — an “Obama’s rhetoric is full of shit” crime movie. Okay, not Obama’s per se, but his inspirational come-together theme of the ’08 campaign (a clip from his acceptance speech in Chicago is used at the beginning and end) or the generic uplift rhetoric of “America the beautiful.” Pull the wool off, take the needle out, wake up to what America is.
So this isn’t The Friends of Eddie Coyle, mon ami, but a Metaphor Movie. The political newscast and Obama-speech clips are interwoven a bit more persistently than is necessary. But the ending of Killing Me Softly, no question, hits it right slam on the head. I chuckled. I left the theatre with a grin.
Most of Softly, like any good crime pic, is about character, dialogue, minutae, this and that manner of slimeball scumbag, rain, sweat, snack, bottles of beer, guns and old cars (i.e., ratty old buckets, classic muscle cars, ’80s gas guzzlers). Nobody in Killing Me Softly ever heard of a Prius.
Pitt delivers a solid, snarly performance as the bearded, leather-jacketed Cogan. But running a close second is Scoot McNairy as a scuzzy thief who’s out of his depth. He does more than just scuzz around and suck in cigarette smoke. He exudes fear and anguish along the usual cocky irreverence required of any bottom-tier criminal. He should and will be seen again, and often.
Other stands performances come from Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola and the Australian Ben Mendelsohn, acting with his native accent, as the sweatiest and gunkiest no-account junkie west of the Pecos.
Given a choice between an unfettered, down-to-basics George V. Higgins crime drama and what Softly double-track variation is, I’m mostly pleased with the latter. We all know the about the lure of rugged, tangy, straight-punch crime films, which much of Softly is. We’ve been there many, many times. So why not a crime film that goes for something else on top of the usual-usual? Ladies and gents, it’s okay with me.
KIlling Them Softly costars Scott McNarity, Ben Mendehlson during this morning’s press conference.