23 September 2012

"You Ever Killed Anyone? It Can Get Touchy-Feely"

On the first cold, rainy day of autumn there's nothing like huddling up in a cinema and watching a brilliant, if gloomy, gangster movie. Andrew Dominik's new movie Killing Them Softly, based on George V. Higgins's novel Cogan's Trade, tells the story of the small-time hoodlums who think they can get away with robbing a mob-run card game and of the enforcer, played by an excellent Brad Pitt, sent to put the situation to rights. The film is plenty grim, but its sharp script has some funny--or, at least, darkly comic moments--and the strong performances from the ensemble cast elevate Killing Them Softly above your average gangster flick.

It is 2008, during the dying days of George W. Bush's presidency and the beginnings of the economic crisis are also starting to impact the criminal underworld, whose members are forced to take riskier jobs and to accept lower fees. At the bottom of the food chain are ex-cons Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are hired by Johnny (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a mob-protected poker game. It's a tricksy job but, Johnny tells them, they will get away with it because it has been discovered that Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who hosts the game, has arranged for his own game to be robbed before, so everyone will blame him. Frankie is dumb and naive and Russell is a stoner; neither is very experienced.

The heist goes well, but Frankie and Russell don't count on Jackie Cogan (Pitt), who is tasked by a mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) with finding out what really went down and taking care of it. And yes, that is a euphemism. Cogan is cool and casual, smart and to the point but he also believes in killing people "softly," or at a distance, without getting too close to the target. "You ever killed anyone?" he asks the lawyer. "It can get touchy-feely." As such, although he agrees to "take care of" Frankie, he hires Mickey (James Gandolfini), a whiny, overweight alcoholic to do the hit on Johnny, whom Cogan knows from before. Needless to say, there aren't many happy endings in this movie.

Killing Them Softly feels like a Tarantino film in some ways: most of the scenes consist of pairs of characters sitting around talking, interspersed with moments of intense violence and the occasional voice-over as a character describes a past event. We see four bullets rip through the skull of one character in extreme slow motion, while yet another incongruous song plays in the background (the soundtrack is great, featuring Johnny Cash, the Velvet Underground and Petula Clark, but most of the songs come from another era, many of which wouldn't be inappropriate as the montage song at the end of an episode of Mad Men). Apart from Pitt's Cogan, whose charisma and coolness somehow make him more likable, no one is sympathetic. They do bad things and aren't nice people.

My biggest issue with the film is its contemporary setting. Cogan's Trade was set in Boston in 1974 but Dominik moves it to any-town in 2008--as the film opens, we see Frankie walking along a deserted street, trash blowing around him and Barack Obama and John McCain's faces smiling down from a billboard. Throughout the film, whenever a radio or TV is on, Obama will be delivering a message of hope, or Bush or someone from his administration will be confirming just how bad the economy is. Yes, the financial crisis has affected the crime world too, but this point just seemed to detract from the story, which didn't really need any wider political message to it. It reminded me a little of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans. This aside, Killing Them Softly is a smart, bleak and well-acted film. I would be surprised if Pitt doesn't rack up another Oscar nod for his performance.

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