Killing Them Softly

For a crime drama set during the 2008 financial meltdown, Killing Them Softly is filled with dry wit and moments of twisted humour.

Adapted from George V Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, this is a crime caper that is not cut from the same cloth as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, or for that matter, any other crime-drama that is now an eternal classic. Killing Them Softly is a powerful contemporary drama that relies heavily on extensive conversations, with a laidback approach detailing the working of cogs and wheels behind the outer façade of organized crime.

By far, there is little comparison to previous crime films of yesteryears and neither should there be any expectation as such. Writer-director Andrew Dominik starts and ends the story as the US economy begins its downward spiral in 2008: a crucial moment in history when Presidential hopeful Barak Obama is set to take over from George Bush Jr. Not only does this form the film’s backdrop, it does so by narrating the socio-economic nitty-gritties of gangland entrapment. Running an illicit gambling den in New Orleans, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is robbed for the second time, right in the middle of a high stakes poker game. Quick on the scene is a mob protected lawyer (Richard Jenkins in another fine role) who brings in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a mafia investigator, enforcer, and hit man rolled into one. Preceded only by his fearsome reputation for getting things done, and hawkeyed attention to detail, Cogan is tasked with finding the naïve crooks that made off with the gambling money, after first investigating Trattman’s negligence in preventing the holdup from recurring.

For a crime film with a dark undercurrent, Killing Them Softly is filled with dry wit and moments of twisted humour. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play the dimwits who decide to rob the mob, and by doing so, step into a huge pile of their own ordure. Going up against the mob with a half-conceived plan is as smart as asking the head of the Cosa Nostra if his mother is for sale. By the time we get to the second half, Dominik’s narration becomes grimmer and our dimwits become dimmer. You almost feel sorry for them. Pitt plays an anti-hero with restrained compassion (a step up from his grim reaper in Meet Joe Black), who likes to execute his victims when they least expect it. This of course is in reference to the title, but Dominik makes you wait, almost salivating with fangs bare, for Cogan to dish out some punishment. If you are patient to sit through some frustratingly long dialogues that sometimes detract from context, you will be rewarded with some violent, albeit in-your-face brutality. The problem is you have to endure a lot of talky dialogue, which for the most part, takes its own sweet time to arrive past the small talk.

The juxtaposition of crime in a failing economy becomes the writing on the wall as we progress deeper into the story. Administering his own brand of justice, Cogan doesn’t care who gets to be the new President because he thinks the United States has seen better days. In retrospect, Dominik could not have hit a well-timed bull’s-eye in echoing Higgins’ social commentary that crime thrives best when the economy doesn’t. And for the haters, as there will be quite a few, issues with pacing will be the first discomforting hurdle. Profanity and sexist remarks will be the gagging second for pro-feminist viewers; so will James Gandolfini’s alcohol fuelled rants on how he likes his prostitutes. Speaking of which, acting forms the best component with a powerhouse performance from top names in guest appearances. My only disappointment is the diluted roles for Liotta and Gandolfini. Even with some fine characterisation, you don’t get to see the terrifying persona they have individually brandished in previous crime dramas. Now, coming back to Dominik, there is nothing soft about Killing Them Softly. If anything, it’s a hard-as-nails story that is entertaining even in its brutally morbid moments.

Rating: ★★★½☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.