Sometimes, sometimes, life is just hard for everyone. Even gangsters and hitmen are having a tough time during this bleak economic times. If you are struggling and trying to find work, even the bad guys are feeling the pinch. Director/writer Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) bases his film on the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins entitled “Cogan’s Trade” and as such this crooks and hitmen plot appear to be a throwback to that period with a more modernized update as the plot is set around 2008 just after the economic collapse under Pres. George W. Bush and before Barack Obama’s election as president.
Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are two unlikely guys to get hired to pull off a robbery of an illegal gambling ring ran by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Be that as it may, Johnny “Squirrel’ Amato (Vincent Curatola) believes that the timing is perfect since Markie had just recently confessed during a drunken moment that he ripped off his own operation some years ago; he is banking that Markie will now get the blame for the job. The two bumbling idiots actually manage to pull off the job, and this leads to Driver (Richard Jenkins) calling in cool as ice enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of things. Jackie is stepping in since the usual ‘go-to guy’ Dillon (Sam Shepard) who had questioned Markie in the past is recovering from a stab wound. Jackie then calls in his associate Mickey (James Gandolfini) as the second hitman, but it seems like it is hard to get good help these days and even mob bosses are getting very stingy.
“Killing Them Softly” is a crime film built on a ‘set up’. It is quite a simple set up, but the screenplay adds certain comings and goings to make the film much more complex than it actually is. You might say that its set up is actually what complicates things, it becomes very complex as most of the details of the plot are shared through dialogue and so as a result, the film becomes rather slow-moving and a little ‘talkie’ for mainstream movie viewers. Not to say that the dialogue isn’t smart, but I can imagine the movie possibly polarizing some people. I guess you can blame the trailers since the film almost gave me the impression that it was a bare knuckles action comedy.
But once you get the gist of the film, you will recognize that the screenplay had loads of cleverness around it. It is obvious that the parallels between this bunch of crooks and killers come alongside the crooks on Wall Street and even in Washington. The film does not try to hide the fact that there is something it is trying to say, even when the writing is very careful not to point anything out. Used as a background noise, the news feeds and reels serve as a kind of a theme, as a closing scene exits then you see a message that just hits one like a black jack. What made the film work is its share of smart conversations, kind of how Tarantino usually does it, but with a little less flamboyance and more grounded to realism. Dominik was able to communicate that even tough guys and seedy, underworld figures have their own worries and hardships. They are high in the so-called criminal pecking order, and yet not all as is promised as connected with Mickey played by James Gandolfini. Mickey has marital woes, and huge anger issues that he has a lot of things on his mind. Mickey is an emotional mess, he drinks too much and whores too much. Gandolfini was effective in delivering the gloomy humor and cocky bluster , as a way of saying that while politicians are screwing the country, even crooks get screwed too.
Brad Pitt does an excellent job as Jackie. He made his portrayal as someone being restrained and this fits his character quite well. There is a mystery behind Jackie’s character, and this makes him charismatic and yet a little scary. McNairy and Mendelsohn were part of the supporting cast that actually had more screen time than Gandolfini and Pitt; Dominik went for a less obvious route in telling his story. The cinematography and camera work were perfect for this kind of film. It made the scenes stand out as something that happens in the shadows under its dark and gloomy atmosphere.
The film has several displays of violence and I liked how Dominik shot some of the gunplay in slow-motion, revealing each nasty detail. What results is a murder being displayed in motion and touch, as the violence becomes an expression of poetry, black comedy and sickening consequences. Yeah, the film is what you may call an exercise in morose humor and depressing irony. It had several scenes that made me snicker and even give off a quiet laughter, but I did feel that while it was funny, what was being experienced by the characters weren’t seen as funny by them. (ok, perhaps sometimes it is)
“Killing Them Softly” is something that I can say is low key; it is a simple art that exudes high quality. Dominik uses a skill that made posturing and genre, that as he develops his story, he caters to the needs of the genre and yet tries to go beyond expectations. This film can be seen as a gamble, but it is the kind that pays off. It will not appeal to everyone, since its cleverness lies in the simplicity of its craft. The one flaw I could say about it is the fact that it feels that the film is just part of a story. No, it isn’t a masterpiece but it sure was pretty good. Dominik carried the film’s burden with his feel of a bona fide dialogue, great performances and skillful direction. I like ‘talkie’, gritty and dark films and so, this gets a High Recommendation from me. [4 Out of 5 Stars]