Killing Them Softly
Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Rated R, 97 min.
Released Nov. 30, 2012
When Wall Street crumbles, even mobsters get hit by the fallout.
That’s the subtext of this gritty, violent gangster saga set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis and economic collapse, using the mob as a microcosm of capitalistic, cutthroat enterprise in which only the strong survive.
Based on a 1974 crime novel called “Cogan’s Trade,” it revolves around the grungy sub-strata of a New Orleans organized crime outfit—not the guys who make the decisions, but the ones who deliver the messages, the ones who do whatever dirty work is necessary to keep their bosses upstream from being displeased.
In particular, “Killing Them Softly” focuses on Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a mafia hit man brought down as a “consultant” when another associate (Ray Liotta) appears to have stolen from his own mob-run card-game slush fund…again.
The story is set in motion by a couple of small-time, lowlife stick-up men, Frankie and Russell, two bottom dwellers so far down in the sludge—and so hopelessly without other options—that they’re willing to risk everything on a job they know will likely leave them with expiration dates on their lives.
Richard Jenkins plays a no-nonsense, never-named mob middleman who’s always focused on the bottom line. He instructs Pitt’s character to cut costs on bringing in another hit man (James Gandolfini) by trimming some of his travel benefits. “Get him to fly coach,” he says.
The title comes from a conversation between Jenkins and Pitt’s characters about murder, an unsavory but occasionally necessary bit of cleanup when you’re in the business of organized crime. Cogan says he likes to do the job as efficiently as possible, as quickly as possible, from as far away as possible—physically as well as emotionally.
“You ever killed anybody?” he asks. “They cry, they plead, they call for their mothers. I like to kill them softly, from a distance.”
Director Andrew Dominik creates a grim, stylishly brutal parable of men (there are only two women who even appear onscreen; one’s a hooker and the other’s a mistress, and only one of them has any lines of dialogue at all) scrambling to stay afloat—and alive—in a world where the only rule is kill or be killed, both figuratively and literally.
Pitt makes a superb “wise guy,” with no qualms or internal conflicts about his drive to succeed. With well-established gangster pedigrees from “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos,” it’s a kick to see Liotta and Gandolfini in roles much further down on the mobster food chain.
It’s impossible to miss the movie’s not-so-subliminal economic overtones, which is telegraphed in replays of television and radio newscasts that play in the background, highlighting headlines of America’s recessionary meltdown of 2008 and culminating in the election of President Barack Obama that November.
The movie’s final scene plays out in a bar with a TV playing Obama’s uplifting victory speech about a newly unified nation, which sparks a cynical tirade from Cogan. He’s just found out he’s been screwed out of money he thinks he’s earned fair and square—if mob business can be ever considered fair and square.
“America isn’t a country,” he says. “America is a business. Now pay me.”
There’s nothing soft about “Killing Them Softly,” which hits like a sledgehammer—and leaves a lasting mark as a top-notch, viscerally powerfully mobster movie with a view of free-market enterprise as practiced at its most harrowingly basic, last-man-standing level.