Having previously worked together on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt have teamed up again for Killing Them Softly, a gangster thriller based on the novel Cogan’s Trade. It’s almost really good, but makes a few unfortunate missteps which prevent it from being as good as it should have been.
Set during the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential election, a pair of low-level wiseguys (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) decide to pull a heist on a card game run by mob boss Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), thinking they will get away with it because Markie previously arranged for another of his games to be robbed so he could take the money. In response, Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is hired to investigate the heist and kill those responsible.
Cogan in turns hires an older, more experienced hitman, Mickey, to take care of the killing, played by James Gandolfini, who is essentially playing an older, washed-up version of Tony Soprano, and is very enjoyable in the role. The film’s best scenes are those which are simply of Pitt and Gandolfini talking to each other: Jackie is young, professional and very good at his job, while Mickey’s life is disintegrating around him, with him more concerned with drinking and whoring than doing what he’s been hired to do. It’s a real pity that they only share two scenes, as I would gladly have watched a whole film about these two characters. McNairy and Mendelsohn are also very fun to watch, with their characters very obviously having no real idea about what they’re doing: one of the funniest scenes involves them planning their heist, and the ridiculous choice of gun they make for use during the robbery.
If there is one word to describe Killing Them Softly, it would be: stylish. Dominik is a very talented director, and the film looks fantastic, recalling more classical gangster films despite being set in the modern era. A couple of scenes really stand out for style: an execution carried out by Jackie, where we see the spent cartridge ejected from the gun, a glass window shattering, and the unfortunate victim being punctured by bullets, all in great looking slow-motion. And then there is a scene where Mendelsohn is talking to McNairy while taking drugs, in which Mendelsohn’s perspective is full of fade-ins and outs, coupled with extreme close-ups and distorted sound, contrasted with McNairy’s perspective being sharp and clear; it’s a great way of representing the two characters’ different perceptions of what’s going on.
If Killing Them Softly had been concerned with nothing more than telling its story, it would have been a better film. Unfortunately, it keeps trying to inject political commentary into the proceedings, which, with the notable exception of Pitt’s closing condemnation of American society, almost entirely falls flat. The problem is not so much with the commentary itself, wherein the gangsters more or less are representations of American bankers and politicians, but the way it’s inserted into the narrative. It’s almost always done by showing TV or radio broadcasts, either of McCain and Obama giving speeches, or of news about the economic crisis; the dialogue always stops for these broadcasts, and it has the effect of making the scenes seem disjointed and breaking the flow of Killing Them Softly.
It’s such a shame to see potential squandered like this. Killing Them Softly could have been a great film, but the political commentary just feels out of place and breaks up the narrative. Apart from that, there really isn’t much to complain about, other than the paucity of scenes featuring both Pitt and Gandolfini. Sadly, the emphasis on the politics, and the extent to which it simply doesn’t work, have a very big impact on the film: it’s good, but it’s not great.