[30 November 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How do you like your hired killers? Bloodthirsty? Direct? Unabashedly cruel and vicious? How about depressed and talkative? Well, if you love the latter, get ready for the overly loquacious boredom that is Killing Them Softly. Carved out of a 1974 novel called Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins (perhaps most famous for his other book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and shifted from Boston to a post-Katrina locale, this ponderously paced mess from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik loves the sound of its own voice. When it’s not wasting time discussing things to death, it’s borrowing from betters while trying to breathe unnecessary new life into the antiquated concept of illegal street justice.
Brad Pitt may be all over the marquee, but he is a minor figure here. He is Jackie Cogan, a mob “fixer” who solve problems while keeping his distance. He likes to kill his victims “softly”, without any mess or emotional involvement. Brought in to find out what happened during the robbery of an underground card game, he soon discovers that original target, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) probably had nothing to do with it. Instead, it looks like a local lug (Vincent Curatola) and his two doped up accomplices (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hit the illegal racket for some quick cash. Under the orders of the button down lawyer to the thugs (Richard Jenkins), Jackie brings in some help in the form of New York Mickey (James Gandfolfini). When it looks like he will be nothing but useless, our able antihero takes matters into his own murderous hands.
The result? Something akin to Zen and the Art of Being a Humble Hitman. Wearing a more conservative version of his Johnny Suede hairdo and smoking up a storm, Pitt applies the philosophical lessons that one can only learn by putting bullets into their fellow man to try and sort through one of the simplest crimes in gangster lore. Liotta’s Markie has already hit his own game once, so within days, someone decides to do it again, with all blame reverting back to the lug. Jenkins’ go-between wants people punished, and Pitt is the man with the attitude and ammunition. Along the way, we get a surreal slow motion whack job/car crash, a directorial decision to show heroin as Heaven, and more conversating than a Reservoir Dogs roundtable with diarrhea of the mouth.
Instead of going from Point A (crime) to Point B (punishment), Killing Them Softly applies an antithetical artistic strategy that goes a little something like this:
“Hey, some of our mob guys got robbed… let’s talk about it for 10 minutes.”
“Let’s hire some hitmen to clean up this mess… let’s talk about it for 10 minutes.”
“I know who did this… let’s talk about it for 10 minutes.”
“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself… let’s talk about it for 10 minutes.”
Now, if the dialogue crackled like that of the hyperactive auteur who envisioned Hitler getting shot in the face, we wouldn’t care. We’d be angry when the stylized killings come along, since they would take away from the equally lethal conversations. But Dominik dilutes the world-weary words Higgins crafted to let his gifted cast simply ramble on. How else would you explain Gandolfini’s fetishizing of some Jewish prostitute he met in Florida? Or Pitt’s muddled byplay with Jenkins. Our dumb dope fiends spend an entire car ride discussing the value of having sex with dirty (literally filthy) girls while, in the background, the filmmaker forces anti-America circa 2008 political propaganda at us. Indeed, the entire aura of the film is focused around the last few months of George Bush’s presidency, the collapse of the economy, and the sorry ghost town state of New Orleans.
Yet Killing Them Softly doesn’t really DO anything with these elements. Instead, it believes in the power of words, and hurls them at the audience with flawed frequency. We need some moments of quiet contemplation—not too many, but a few—so that the actions of these antisocial bastards seem less… lackadaisical? Indeed, when someone is going on and on about being professional and getting the job done, you eventually just want him to shut up and do it, already. Instead, just as it’s ramping up to get all gory, Killing Them Softly stops off at the racketeering version of the Algonquin and settles in for a nice long ramble. By the time the bullets do fly, Dominik has to gussy them up with unnecessary visual panache. We don’t mind the flourishes, just the chatty foolishness beforehand.
In fact, had the director applied the same stylized, over the top tendencies that he shows in the various scenes of violence, Killing Them Softly would be a winner. It’d be an eccentric combination of John Woo and David Lynch (by the way, Mr. Dominik earns instant demerits for mimicking an important moment from Blue Velvet, including a wholly unnecessary audio cue). Instead, he hopes his garrulous characters will carry us past the problems in both execution and exposition. This is a movie that literally explains everything, which walks us through every minor detail of life on the wrong side of the law and none of it is very entertaining or interesting. Imagine an entire movie made out of the life of a drowsy Winston Wolfe wannabe and you start to get the idea.
It’s a shame, really. Pitt and the rest of the cast are fairly good at making us believe this mess. They come across as worn wise guys simply struggling to get by, especially Animal Kingdom‘s Mendelsohn, who looks like he’s permanently covered in a fine layer of greasy slim,e. There’s also little moments of electricity, as when Gandolfini confronts an inattentive waiter, that argue for what this film could have been. As it stands, Killing Them Softly is gangster-lite… and it won’t shut up about it. Sometimes, when you can talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. Otherwise, it’s just glib and underwhelming. Like this film.