It’s a good thing that Andrew Dominik, who directs Killing Them Softly (2012), opens his movie with a shot of a billboard of Obama and McCain; otherwise we might not know what time we’re in. This is a movie set in 2008 that looks like it was made in 1978. Everyone drives 30–year-old cars and wears dated clothes and hairstyles; even the city it’s set in looks like a hollowed out blue-collar town of the Carter years. The movie is 80 percent over before we see our first cell phone.
Perhaps this is because the George Higgins novel Killing Them Softly is based on was written in 1974. Either way, Dominik is insistent on reminding us of just when we are. The movie is about criminals, but especially politically informed criminals, who watch the news and listen to political speeches on the radio. Along with a soundtrack of mid–century country & western and soul, the movie moves to the beats of the speeches of President George W. Bush and then Senator Barack Obama. “We cannot allow the irresponsibility of a few undermining the financial security of all,” we hear. Then the movie tells us the story of a couple of screw-ups who think they’ve pulled off the perfect crime but really mess up the solvency of the entire criminal system. Get it?
There is a high-stakes poker game in the Northeast that hosts the most dangerous gangsters and drug-runners. A couple of months back two guys knocked it over, robbing the gamblers at gunpoint. The gangsters were none too pleased but couldn’t discover who did it. After the whole thing blew over, the organizer of the game, Markie (Ray Liotta), laughingly fesses up to the robbery. Markie is well-liked so the transgression is allowed to slide. Three lowlifes led by Frankie (Scoot McNairy) catch wind of this and figure if they raid the place, Markie will catch the blame. Their plan works until the big bosses, upset that their gaming income has dried up because robberies have spooked the gamblers, dispatch Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional enforcer, to violently dole out punishment.
Throughout Cogan’s hunt for the various transgressors (which is frightfully easy considering Frankie and his clan have loose lips), Dominik constructs a ham-fisted parallel between what’s happening in the criminal world and what’s happening in the U.S. economy around the same time. The ubiquitous politics seem bizarre until the audience makes the connection, then it’s distracting as Dominik repeatedly reminds us that greed, at the level of two-bit gangsters and multibillion corporations alike, is bad. This is a movie with a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, slapping and bashing and punching and so forth; yet it’s the audience that gets beat over the head. “This isn’t a country,” Cogan says, right before the credits roll. “This is America, and America is a business.” Ohhh, I get it now.
Though Pitt dominates the screen and the plot is a singular drive toward Cogan achieving his aims, the movie is populated with a great number of terrific supporting characters, including the all-purpose Richard Jenkins as Cogan’s handler and James Gandolfini as a aging, drunken hitman. There’s also a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance from Sam Shepard as one of the bosses. I’m sure if I thought about it long enough, I could figure out which one of these people is Lehman Brothers and which one is AIG in the facile morality play Dominick constructs but instead of focusing on that, I tuned out the political symbolizing and focused on the story, performances and filmmaking, and I found that I was watching a sad tale that is able to project its bitterness and cynicism without resorting to the broad lines it draws.
Last year a simple, violent and highly stylized movie about a stoic professional criminal with a rich supporting cast came out called Drive (2011), which similarly felt like it was made 30 years before it was set. Drive was steeped in the mid ’80s, where Killing Them Softly is reminiscent of the spare exploitation movies of the late ‘70s. The shadowy interior cinematography by Greig Fraser mimics Gordon Willis, while the outdoor daytime scenes are filled with sepia-soaked train yards and abandoned buildings that feel like Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Mean Streets (1973). This gives the movie an eerie feeling of precariousness. Beyond their actions Killing Them Softly gives us the sense that these criminals are actively spoiling their own bed; we don’t need the constant commentary about how this relates to modern capitalism.
Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, Brad Pitt is the central force of the movie, and while he shares Gosling’s cold professionalism, he’s more of a live wire. In that regard, he resembles Matthew McConaughey’s character in Killer Joe (2012). There’s a snakelike charm to Cogan coupled with a vicious and sudden fatality. Pitt is immensely watchable as he doggedly proceeds on his mission. McNairy looks and sounds like Giovanni Ribisi; he has the same low-rent quality (I mean that as a compliment), and here he has some of the similar manner of Casey Affleck, especially noticeable in his scenes with Pitt, reminding us of Dominik’s previous film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). I wish Killing Me Softly had been as subtle as that movie.
Despite some of its flaws, however, there’s a real anger in the movie that comes across the screen. It may be heavy-handed but its point is well taken. These are criminals who have rigid codes and a warped but defined set of principles, but the overriding credo is to keep the money coming. Cogan seems to sense the short-sided nature of the mob’s practices and sees that while he’s flushing out the bad elements, the structure that allowed them to take advantage remains and will be ripe for the next crop of bad elements. As the movie inelegantly has him remind us, America isn’t a community, it’s everyone for themselves. Besides, if the system were set up to resist corruption, who would he get paid to kill?