Movie Review: Killing Them Softly
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Killing Them Softly
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Written by Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta
The Weinstein Company
Rated R | 97 Minutes
Release Date: November 30, 2012

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of George V. Higgins‘ 1974 crime novel, Cogan’s Trade.

When South Boston low-lifes Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) break into an illegal card game and steal the cash, they attract the attention of contract killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt).

The underground poker circuit is run by low-level mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who becomes an immediate suspect because he robbed his own card game a few years back. The two thugs assume the blame will fall on Trattman, leaving them free from mob retaliation. As you might imagine, they assume wrong.

The South Boston mob sends a representative (Richard Jenkins) to sit down with Cogan to work out the details of Frankie and Russell’s demise, and what to do with Markie – who is living on borrowed time after his previous stunt.

Killing Them Softly is set in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, where writer/director Andrew Dominik repeatedly hits us over the head with comparisons between a financial crisis, a corrupt political system, and the violent circumstances of Higgins’ crime-drama.

Criminals drive around listening to public radio broadcasts and watch C-SPAN to remind us that John McCain and Barack Obama are fighting for the future of the country while current President George W. Bush makes speeches during the nation’s economic collapse. If it wasn’t so heavy-handed, this approach could add a much needed layer of subtext to Dominik’s film, but it’s so in-your-face it feels more like parody.

Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is your average small-time crook, with not even a hint of characterization or depth – he has no motivation other than the inherent desperation to make lots of dough after a lengthy prison stay. He isn’t interesting or sympathetic in the least bit, which leaves me to wonder where the drama or intrigue is in having Brad Pitt’s hitman hunt him down.

Despite decent performances by Pitt, Liotta, Jenkins, and James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly amounts to 97 minutes of missed opportunities – an entirely underwhelming, boring film that feels like the stillborn baby of The Departed and The Sopranos.

The cinematography by Greig Fraser (Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty) is astounding, and it’s a shame such visually stimulating imagery is wasted on a cynical, completely emotionless script. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is a mysterious man in black – a man very few people know. Introduced to us via Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around,” Jackie Cogan is a shotgun-toting badass with slicked back hair who likes to put his targets down softly – and by softly I mean, blow them away and make as much noise as possible in the process.

Honestly, compared to William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and Matthew McConaughey’s extraordinary performance as the psychotic contract killer, Pitt’s Cogan is a lifeless, drowsy hitman who takes time out from blowing guys away to spout cynical poetry about current events: “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now fucking pay me.”

That’s the problem with Killing Them Softly, it’s all business – heartless and uninspired. While dark and gritty and exceedingly violent, it fails to stir little emotion or intrigue: a not-so-subtle film that screams loudly as it lets us down gently.

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