Killing Them Softly presents violent career criminals going about their business with the same kind of depressing regularity that law-abiding members of society do. These characters don’t know a life outside of crime, whether petty or organized. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), the film presents the Mafia as a system that operates independently of the mainstream. As rough and tumble as these guys are, they aren’t particularly imposing because we know that they’re unlikely to bother us as long as we steer clear of them. Dominik, adapting his screenplay from George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, depicts them as working guys who more or less mind their own business.
That’s the mistake made by small-time crooks Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two walnut-brained losers who accept a very risky job. They don’t steer clear, instead choosing to get involved way over their heads. Johnny “Squirrel” Amato has come up with the idea to rob a mob-controlled card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Squirrel needs two chumps to do the dirty work. Frankie and Russell step up the challenge, but they haven’t fully considered the consequences. Since Markie once pulled a similar job, robbing his own poker game and getting away with it, Squirrel reasons the bosses will assume Markie is up to his old tricks.
He’s right, to a degree at least, as Driver (Richard Jenkins) and philosophical hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) enter the picture. Of course they suspect Markie hired the “kids” himself. They deal with him in kind. But they aren’t stopping there. From there on, Killing Them Softly tracks the process Jackie uses in attempting to track down Frankie, Russell, and Squirrel. Along the way we also meet Mickey (James Gandolfini), a depressed hitman with a failed marriage and a serious drinking problem. Jackie is highly efficient at his job, while Mickey manages to keep screwing things up.
The intentionally stagnant pacing of Killing Them Softly is alleviated immensely by the compelling performances of the aforementioned leads. Gandolfini, in particular, seems to really get inside the head of a hitman badly in need of therapy (miles away from a comic take on such material, i.e. De Niro in Analyze This). It’s also interesting to see Liotta playing a victim of aggression rather than a perpetrator.
The film works best when it simply lets us into these guys’ world of violence, double crossing, and murder. However, the matter-of-fact presentation is at odds with a few scenes in which Dominic indulges in overly stylized violence. One character’s deaths is so garishly staged, with slow motion digital blood splattering, it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the more effective subtlety that dominates the picture.
Another area where Dominic stumbles is the socio-political subtext that he thumps us over the head with. The story takes place during the final days of the 2008 presidential election. We’re reminded of that by the inclusion of campaign speeches by soon-to-be President-elect Barack Obama and reports of the American financial crisis. I liked the idea of showing that the collapse of the economy resulted in seismic change at all levels, including the criminal underbelly of society. Obama’s campaign promise of “Change we can believe in” and the film’s climax (or more accurately, anti-climax—not a criticism, just a statement of fact) combine for a darkly comic zinger. But Dominic might’ve strengthened his film had he integrated the politics a little more seamlessly.
The DVD includes a handful of deleted scenes and an EPK making-of featurette. Though it bombed at the box office fairly resoundingly, Killing Them Softly is a genuinely black comedy about life as a criminal working stiff that deserves to find a wider audience. I feel its reach exceeds its grasp at times, but the authentically lived-in performances make it easily worth seeing.