Killing Them Softly – with bullets, though, not songs

It’s the perfect crime, isn’t it? Knock off the game run by the guy who everyone knows already knocked off his own game once before. Any dumb monkey could do it.

That is the basic premise of this post-millennium gangster flick. With an all-star cast headed up by Brad Pitt, along with James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Richard Jenkins (Burn After ReadingThe Visitor) and Ray Liotta. But Goodfellas this is not. Gone are the ‘Families’ and ‘Made Men’ of the Mob epics of yesteryear and so is the epic running time, Killing is a mere 97 minutes, but it is time well used and well spent, and who wants to sit through 2 and a half hours anyway.

The game in question, is a mob-protected poker game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta) and the ‘monkeys’ are recent parolee Frankie (Scoot McNairy, MonstersArgo) and permanently wasted puppy pincher, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, AustraliaThe Dark Knight Rises). The mob, understandably pissed at having their game ripped off, again, needs the mess cleaned up so they can reopen the games. Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), the mob enforcer entrusted with the delicate job of finding and removing those responsible.

This hour and a half or so is spent in the company of some varied, well constructed and well portrayed characters set against a backdrop of a rain soaked post-Katrina New Orleans, the growing economic crisis and the final days of the Bush administration. From Pitt’s jaded, cynical but well understated Jackie, to Gandolfini’s over-the-hill, washed-up hit-man, Mickey to McNairy’s in-over-his-head Frankie, Killing Them Softly is as much a study of this diverse collection of characters as it is about the unfolding of Pitt’s cleaning job, which punctuates the film with moments of violence as varied in their cinematic execution as the characters involved.

A bare-knuckle beating which forces the viewer into the position of the victim. A slow motion CGI ‘dance’ of bullets through brains. A there-one-instant-gone-the-next execution. While these moments are well executed (sorry for the pun), I’m not sure that this variety of visual style is particularly necessary given the substance of the interpersonal stories being played out around them and some even feel a little like gratuitous showing off. Cinematically, outside of these performance pieces, the rest of the movie is fairly standard fare, but it doesn’t need to be anything else.

And then, flowing just below the surface is the not so subtle allegory suggesting the mob is no different to Corporate America and even the government. The regular snippets from both Presidents Bush and Obama (then still a Senator) on the state of the nation and the economic climate, heard on radios and TVs throughout the film. These start as seemingly incidental background noise, gradually increasing in prominence until becoming virtually the centerpiece of the final scene between Jackie and Jenkins’s mob liaison  Driver, punctuated with Pitt’s closing line, “America isn’t a country, it’s a business. Now pay me my money!”. Liberal Hollywood ‘having a go’ at the Rupublican right-wingers? Maybe, the original book, George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, was written in 1974, so I’m not sure if this particular subtext has come from there. At least not in the same specifics.

In summary; Killing Them Softly is an enjoyable, albeit violent, watch with solid performances from a great cast. It’s not your average mob flick but I think it will still appeal to fans of such. Hardcore Republicans may find some cause for offence, though.

Killing Them Softly will be in (US) theaters, November 30th. Sorry, UK readers, I think it has already been and gone.

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