KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Andrew Dominik. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong violence, drug use, sexual references and coarse language). 97 min.
This stylish-looking American crime film is based loosely on the 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins. It is set in New Orleans and tracks a professional enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who finds himself caught up in a heist that takes place during a mob-protected poker game. The original story was adapted by Australian writer-director, Andrew Dominik, who directed “Chopper” (2000).
Brad Pitt, who co-produced the movie, takes the lead role, and the film attempts to explore mobster criminality, but also US-capitalism. A sea of odd-ball characters provides some light patches in the middle of a very dark movie, and there are multiple references to the economic downturn of the US economy, and contemporary American politics. Video clips of Barack Obama and George W. Bush appear in the background.
Jackie Cogan is a top-grade professional assassin, with a major flaw. He cannot kill any person he knows, and can’t stand to kill his victims up close, because their pleas for mercy upset him. Thus, he has to murder at a distance, by “killing them softly”. The film is all about a group of incompetent criminals, who create a world that is unbelievably messy, and Society is not treating them at all well. The mobsters are unhappy, because in the current economic climate they have to kill for a reduced fee.
Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is targeted for the heist, because he has robbed his fellow mobsters in the past, and it is assumed he has done so again. This time, he wasn’t responsible, but he is killed anyway. The robbery was carried out by Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The Mob contract with a middle-class lawyer (Richard Jenkins) to look after the problem for them, and he hires Cogan to do the work. Cogan then sub-contracts the job out to his friend, Mickey (James Gandolfini), who shows unstable and undignified emotions that Cogan hates to see in his own victims. Killing in the movie ends up a violent mess, and it gets completely out of hand with criminals, who are as ignorant as they are ruthless.
The film is a black comedy about total confusion, amidst violence that reverses its usual antisocial message. The violence shown actually worsens everybody’s life, and the film pulls away entirely from any argument that killing is appropriate, because it has some respected code of honour attached to it. The film has a lot of brutality, and not everyone is killed “softly”. One murder, in particular, done by Cogan, is a sadistic killing, photographed shockingly in ritualistic, slow-motion.
One might think a film such as this would slip into farce, but it does not. Its dialogue is well-scripted, its music sound-track fits the mood precisely, and the characters in the movie are portrayed with pitch-perfect cynicism. But the film depicts exclusively the world of men. Hardly a female is in sight, and only one woman (a prostitute) actually has anything to say. Women, though, are victims of a lot of sexist talk that is highly aggressive and sexually explicit.
This film offers a thoughtfully depressing metaphor for the current state of the American economy. It depicts a grim world of criminally-minded individuals, who can only accept what interests them the most, and Brad Pitt gives a brilliant performance as Jackie Cogan. The film uses violence to carry its main social message, which is summed up in Pitt’s last line that tells us that America is a country, as everyone knows, which is just “a business”.
Jackie Cogan’s last line is an especially cynical take on the US in a movie that is creative in both conception and direction, very powerful in dramatic impact, but also very bleak.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 11, 2012.