Killing them Softly: Jim’s Take

By Jim Rohner · November 30, 2012

 The 2008 recession apparently hit so hard that it even effected organized crime – or, at least, that's the excuse that a middle man, played by Richard Jenkins, uses to justify a payout for two murders that Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) feels is entirely too low. It's not a conversation you'd expect to hear in a gangster film, but seeing as Killing Them Softly comes from the man who gave us revisionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, those coming into this follow-up feature blind should be prepared to have their expectations defied.

 Set in New Orleans against the backdrop of the political transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Killing Them Softly is a gangster film in the sense that it deals with the goings-on of low-level thugs, hired guns and planned heists, but a complete about-face in Dominik's approach and attitude toward a genre that is quintessentially American.

The low-level thugs in question are Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), hired by a slightly less low-level thug named Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) to rob an underground, Mob-protected poker game to the tune of $100,000. Both Frankie and Russell assume they're much smarter than they actually are, but Amato is counting on that fact to be overshadowed by the history of the guy running the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), whose game was robbed once before by a crew he hired. If there were to be another hit under his watch, Markie would be everyone's prime suspect.

The hit goes off without a hitch and thus, Jackie comes to town to clean up the mess. Despite the beatings, Markie is insistent he didn't do anything. It won't matter, of course, he'll be killed anyway—what kind of message would spread on the streets if he wasn't? "Poor bastard," Jackie laments.

But more people than just Markie have to pay. Russell, living up to his lack of intelligence, ran his mouth and bragged about the robbery. But Jackie doesn't want to get his hands dirty there because he knows Johnny and he can't stand the blubbering, begging and pleading that comes along with having to kill an acquaintance. He prefers to "kill them softly." To accommodate this, he insists on calling in New York Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hitman with a high price tag and an unstable marriage.

Things would appear to be business as usual when it comes to the "what" of Killing Them Softly, but with Andrew Dominik behind the screenplay and the camera, the "how" is what makes the film stand out. Aside from the game card heist bursting with tension, the film doesn't play by the rules of its alleged genre. From the almost uniformly mellow tone and pacing to the allegedly notorious hitman who seems to use booze and hookers as catharsis for his crumbling marriage, the film continues the work Dominik began in The Assassination of Jesse James, taking apart the conventions of a known genre and assembling them back together into an effective original piece in a way that only a filmmaker with a true appreciation for and attention to the detail of what he's disassembling could do.

But the true genius in Killing Them Softly comes from setting the film against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential Election. Many scenes feature the audible and visual echoes of the transition from Bush to Obama, with the former preaching caution about the imminent economic collapse and the latter preaching hope and community moving forward, and by placing a quintessentially American problem in the background of a quintessentially American genre, Dominik manages to simultaneously dispel the illusion of America's "e pluribus unum" attitude and substitute it for once more apropos of a nation that found itself in immense debt thanks to one too many people looking out for themselves.

Pitt's concluding monologue, which essentially boils down to "fuck you, pay me," not only more closely reflects the attitudes of both the nation's policymakers and policy slaves, but also highlights the chasm between the outward facade of what America thinks makes itself great (unity and community) and that of the true day-in and day-out American mindset (self-serving). The corpses that turn up in Killing Them Softly may have been directly killed by bullets to the head, but in a way, they're also victims of a system, one which not only encourages, but rewards those who look out for themselves first and always.