Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is a gangster film that presents the world of the Mob as a microcosm of the 2008 economic collapse that sent the United States into a tailspin. Its characters inhabit an underworld that resembles the mainstream in that there’s an economy, laws to regulate it, and men to enforce the rules. As the story’s players consider their options in the face of their industry’s own economic downturn, speeches from the likes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama play on the TVs and radios in the background, describing the similar conditions experienced by the country.
It’s this connection to real issues that ensures “Killing Me Softly” proves to be more than the usual violent gangster pic, although divorced from thematic context it’s still a superlative genre piece. Doubtlessly, crime’s primary motivation is money, and though this isn’t the first work to equate the Mob with legitimate business, it is one of the most interesting, stylish films to do so.
Brad Pitt stars as Jackie Cogan, a Mob hitman who, like the song and the movie’s title say, likes to kill his targets softly, gunning them down quickly to avoid “embarrassing” crying and pleading. Here, as in Dominick’s previous film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Pitt’s a vicious gunman, an intimidating physical presence who exudes a familiarity with death. Pitt plays Cogan as cool and pragmatic, a respected professional who treats his work with a distinct lack of sentimentality. At one point, Cogan tells his hesitant handler (Richard Jenkins) that a man innocent of a violation needs to be killed. It’s in the interest of consumer confidence, Cogan explains matter-of-factly, like a corporate specialist suggesting workforce cuts (in a way, he is literally doing just this).
Cogan is brought in after the robbery of a poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta), a well-liked but disreputable gangster who has previously robbed his own operation. Suspicion instantly falls on Markie, but Cogan quickly discovers the real culprits, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of bottom-feeding buffoons smart enough to know they’re in danger but too stupid to realize how much.
Filmed in New Orleans but with no diegetic confirmation of the location, Dominik keeps the setting especially small, even as the voices of Bush and Obama serve to remind the audience of the world outside. The characters are all criminals, their universe consisting of bars, hotel rooms, car seats and filthy apartments. These men live with an acceptance of their lot, even if such acceptance means discomfort.
Dominik takes the story of a poker game robbery’s deadly consequences and suffuses it with the pessimism engendered by collapse. Implicit throughout the proceedings is the suggestion that American capitalism, driven by profits, sees the fates of those on the bottom subject to the whims of those on the top.
“Killing Them Softly” runs primarily on conversation, with most scenes dedicated to the characters discussing their next course of action. The dialogue is of the hard-boiled variety, but also centered on details of the Mob business. These men don’t have morals or a code, just rules and profits, and we learn about their characters through the way they handle criminality.
There’s an exception in the form of Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hitman flown in to assist Cogan. He’s a pathetic figure, an alcoholic collapsing under the strain of his profession. Certain critics have argued that Gandolfini’s scenes have little connection to the main plot (indeed, once one sifts through the dialogue, the thread is pretty short and simple), but through him, we get a glimpse of the ravages of excess, the toll a life of criminality and aggressive consumption can wreak on one without Cogan’s discipline.
The scenes of violence are quick and brutal, with one killing rendered in slow motion that transmutes gunfire and bullet wounds into a gorgeous moment of reckoning. Greig Fraser’s cinematography makes the slums that these criminals inhabit into something both lush and appropriately oppressive, managing the trick of imbuing a dialogue-driven film with tension and urgency.
Merging a crime thriller with an allegory for the recession and a critique of capitalism is a somewhat ambitious move on Dominik’s part, as he adapted the screenplay from the 1974 George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade.” Applying the recession allegory to an old story is a risk that pays off, although its sledgehammer subtlety has proven off-putting to many viewers. It’s an imperfect synthesis that’s not airtight (attempting to match each character to clear symbolism is a losing game), but it nonetheless supplies a provocative framework. Unfailingly cynical and unencumbered by the hollow optimism of its featured politicians’ rhetoric, “Killing Them Softly” is, for all intents and purposes, one of the first major films about America’s decline.