Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ crime novel Cogan’s Trade. Aside from adding a dodgy title, Andrew Dominik’s (who previously made the excellent revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) film brings the story forward into the 2008 presidential handover between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Like George Clooney’s recent The Ides of March, Killing Them Softly is a new example of the post-Obama film filled as it is with a palpable disillusionment with the American political process.
Two (very) small-time hoods, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) fall in with Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), who has a plan to knock over an underworld card game. It seems like a safe bet since the blame will almost certainly fall on Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who once previously knocked over the same card game. When Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) gets involved as a mob enforcer charged with dealing with the fallout from the robbery, things do not go as Frankie and Russell had hoped.
Killing Them Softly looks like it is set in the 1970s, with only the constant television and radio broadcasts from 2008 to remind us that it is set closer to our time. In fact, thematically the film is very specifically of our time, despite the throwback mise en scéne. The film is more than the by-the-numbers gangster film that it might at first appear. Instead, the film reflects the constant broadcasts, with the collapsing American economy being compared to the smaller but equally volatile Boston underworld economy. The card game acts as a microcosm; its importance to the economy of the underworld is stressed. Nothing gets done and nobody makes any money when there are no card games. It is a bit of a stretch, but one that is sometimes worth making. The film is often very successful in suggesting parallels between the conventions of the gangster film and the development of the government's response to the recession, especially in the figure of Ray Liotta – a scapegoat whose punishment acts as a symbol to regain consumer confidence in the underworld economy, although it is in itself ineffectual and misguided. Though it is hard to see the logic in a gangster-run card game being as integral to the underworld economy as banking is to the world bank, the film nevertheless has some valid points to make. Probably since it is much easier nowadays to see links between violent gambling gangsters and shady bankers.
So, the film has some points to make about what is going on now and it has a palpable feeling of isolationism, in which no one looks after anyone else and your troubles are absolutely your own. As Cogan says in the histrionic closing speech, “This is America. And in America, you are on your own.” It is better shown in a seemingly throwaway moment in which the raving mad man who is disturbing the peace is quickly silenced, a moment that remains in the background and out of focus as Cogan walks blithely on. The film is deeply critical of what America has become and the aforementioned closing speech acts as an unnecessary clarification and a summary of the film’s message, while also suggesting that it is still relevant, coming as it does as a response to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. The film uses the growing disillusionment with Obama as an example of how little things have moved forward, showing that even if things are shaken to their rotten core, the reestablishment of the status quo remains oddly the key objective. However, is all this politics effective?
One of the key questions that 1960s political cinema engaged in was the question of how to make effective political cinema. Jean-Luc Godard and his disciples preferred to “make political films politically”, avoiding the distracting features of narrative cinema, such as stories and characters that one could empathise with. Narrative cinema was judged ineffectual because it was felt that the audience would not be able to take a step back from the drama and consider the questions that are being raised in any significant way. Though dated, these films, Godard’s La Chinoise or Vera Chytilova’s Daisies are good examples, remain arresting and thought provoking. Killing Them Softly, though clearly angry and passionately argued, does little to educate or challenge since it merely addresses the already converted and those who feel obliged to draw its tenuous parallels to the real world. Most viewers might not even be interested in the politics that are placed prominently in front of the film, preferring to ignore it and find instead a slightly atypical and, hence, dramatically unsatisfying genre movie.
The tropes of the gangster film are all here, with small-time hoods, a rather misjudged drug sequence, some unconvincing Tarantino-esque diversions and a lot of grim violence. In fact, it is too much of a gangster film for all of its otherwise serious pretensions. One killing is presented entirely in slow motion with a love song playing over it, a sequence with absolutely no substance but a lot of rather clichéd stylistics. Similarly, there’s a whole thing about dogs and an exploding car that feels horribly like a scene from a bad Tarantino imitation. The casting nods back to Goodfellas and The Sopranos while a flashy and heavily orchestrated beating scene is somehow allowed to take precedence over any of the political statements that the filmmakers are supposedly so driven to make. Often it seems that Dominik is making up for the fact that his film is at heart a stagy political parable by emphasising trendy camera movements and edgy musical counterpoints for no good reason. In the end, it makes Killing Them Softly feel a lot less serious and sincere than it should be and, hence, it does not really have much of importance to say. As political cinema, as a result, it is far from radical.
Similarly, Brad Pitt is badly miscast as Jackie Cogan, not because he doesn’t look the part or because he isn’t convincing – in fact it is probably one of his best performances – but because he is hopelessly out of context. He is too glamorous and too much of a star to appear in a film with Killing Them Softly’s kind of message. Everything about Killing Them Softly is cynical and disappointing and grim, except its star. Ultimately, for the film to have any point, Jackie Cogan should be as pathetic as the rest of the characters just as the film’s flashier moments should be as toned down as the rest of the film. Stars, and directorial pyrotechnics, should be kept out of political cinema. When Godard and co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin cast Jane Fonda in Tout va bien, they were making an ironic nod to the kinds of compromises that films have to make in order to get financed - see too their subsequent Letter To Jane, a rumination on the disparity between stars and effective politics. Here Brad Pitt appears in a didactic role in a political film that he partly self-financed through his production company Plan B Entertainment. Like Johnny Depp and his partly self-financed and vacuous, dreary pseudo-political The Rum Diary, through Infinitum Nihil, the overall impression of the film is that of a vanity project, the initially good intentions undermined by the ego of the star. As Killing Them Softly plays out, it feels more and more as if Brad Pitt is the film’s subject and driving force, rather than the political rhetoric that it supposedly advocates.
Killing Them Softly works as a grim, moody gangster film most of time, though too often it falls into avoidable stylistic clichés – its ironic use of pop music in particular feels ancient. With a political agenda that can be interesting, the film has some valid points to make, but the violence, the exposition and the star too easily divert it. The lasting impression is of a failed experiment or a step backwards, one that could have been better if Dominik and Pitt had watched less gangster films and had done more research into the developments of political cinema.