One of my favorite films of 2007 was the brilliantly-titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which stars Brad Pitt and was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, a New Zealand-born director still in the earlier stages of a promising career. In his follow-up film, Dominik reteams with Pitt for Killing Them Softly, a crime film framed during the 2008 financial meltdown and the U.S. Presidential election.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film adaptation follows the novel’s story of a card game heist and transports it to 2008, in a hard-hit area of decaying America, the kind of economic wasteland we’ve seen countless times in recent movies (it was shot in New Orleans and doesn’t really look much like South Boston, where the novel was set). Low-rent criminals Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to knock off an underground poker game by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola). Despite being woefully unprepared, the pair manages to successfully pull the job off. The game is run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who becomes the primary suspect for the heist since years ago he arranged a similar crime to line his pockets and later admitted to it. Nonetheless, a mob middleman (Richard Jenkins) calls in enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to straighten out the situation by killing everyone involved. Cogan in turn attempts to hire Mickey (James Gandolfini), a seasoned hitman, to pull off one of the murders, but Mickey simply doesn’t have it in him anymore, leaving Cogan to pull off the job himself anyway.
Pitt’s character is suavely dressed and is introduced to the film to Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’… in other words, Dominik is waving a big flag to tell you “Hey! It’s one of those macho tough guys that we all love in movies!” Pitt certainly pulls it off, but a better way for Pitt to be a tough guy is to have him do less talking and more actions, like the way the Coens made Javier Bardem an instant threat in No Country For Old Men simply by having him act. Cogan never seems all that threatening because he’s so verbose, and instead he comes off as a far less menacing version of Matthew McConaughey‘s Killer Joe. Think about it — what do almost all of cinema’s macho icons have in common? They’re the strong, silent types.
In fact, the biggest weakest of Killing Them Softly as a whole is that it’s just too damn talky. The film is ninety minutes long, but approximately seventy of those minutes are talking, and it sure isn’t 90s Tarantino dialogue — you know, the compelling type you wouldn’t mind listening to for hours — and it’s not even Death Proof Tarantino dialogue. These is made even more agonizing by a key scene in which Frankie and Russell have a conversation about the robbery while both are high. Dominik does a fine job of simulating their state of mind by fading in and out with the visuals and sound, but it prolongs a scene that could be wrapped up in seconds. It also doesn’t help that McNairy’s Frankie speaks in a croaky, long-vowel irritating drawl that sounds like a frog trying to imitate a Boston accent. At least the scene is somewhat broken up by Russell recounting a past job of stealing dogs, which contains the funny scene of the car exploding that is featured in the trailer. It’s a great bit, but actually has nothing to do with the film as a whole except to demonstrate that Russell is the type that does the stupidest thing a criminal could do after committing a crime: run his mouth off about it.
See this? They’re talking. There are a lot of scenes like this in this movie.
Even the action scenes are too talky — the characters talk about what they are going to do, then they do it, and then they talk about how they did it. Thankfully, the few action scenes are filled with gruesome effects, and punches sound like a sledgehammer hitting a bag of concrete mix in an echo chamber. So while these action scenes deliver, it takes so long to get to them. Gandolfini might be the only actor in the film that I would rather hear talk than anything else — he’s one of those actors who could make reading a Chinese menu compelling — but he only appears in two scenes in the film and then completely disappears from the narrative (his disappearance is explained — naturally — in a lengthy dialogue scene between Pitt and Jenkin’s characters). Oh, and another talented actor, Sam Shepard, is also in this — but blink and you’ll miss him, because his disappearance from the narrative is explained — you guessed it — in a lengthy dialogue scene. Exposition is alive and well in cinema!
Everything that was genius in Dominik’s subdued and deliberate in Jesse James is turned on its head here. The setting is clever in its comparisons to the mob’s “economic crisis” to the 2008 recession, though I think it’s a bit premature to try to make a meaningful statement about a recession that we’re not even out of, kind of like how VH1 started doing “I Love the New Millennium” specials in 2008. It makes for a unique backdrop, but has little overall effect on the narrative until Cogan ties in his predicament to the cliches in Barack Obama’s election night victory speech in the film’s final scene. I guess we’re lucky that all of these mob types in the movie always have CNN or C-SPAN on their TVs or talk radio on to provide not-so-subtle commentary comparing the U.S. economy to the mob. The few times the radio is tuned to music it also perfectly ties into the scene. I know this is the movies so there’s no reason why everything can’t fit together perfectly, but why be so obvious about it? What happened to the brilliant subtle commentary on celebrity done by the director in Jesse James?
Though originally set for a September release, Killing Them Softly was held back for two months in order to position it better for awards consideration. I don’t know what awards the Weinsteins think this film is going to win, because it’s an average crime film at best and nowhere in the league of Jesse James. That is, unless some group gives an award for “most dialogue scenes.”
Rating: Though it’s a solid crime film, Pitt is miscast and I doubt it will ever be mentioned as one of the benchmarks of the genre (6/10).