There is a part of me that wants to write a two sentence review for this movie: "Killing Them Softly is fantastic! Go see it." Leave it at that. My reasoning? The things that make this movie so engaging, so unique, and so fascinating, could almost sound too off-putting or esoteric in a film review. I fear that they might dissuade you from actually buying your ticket. Trust me: despite any intellectual tomfoolery I may hint at, this is one of the best films of 2012.
On the surface, we have a story of small-time gangsters and even smaller-time criminals. The money stolen amounts to about 100 thousand dollars. In the grand scheme of things, people's livelihoods considered -- that is chicken feed. Compared to the crimes of an elitist retch like Bernie Madoff, these are humble misdemeanors.
Killing Them Softly is not about "The American Dream", as many film critics seem to believe. It is more precisely about the failure of "The American Dream". Tragically, it appears that Capitalism didn't pan out for the little guy. Barack Obama's "Change Speech" plays over the opening credits as we see a greasy-haired Caucasian loser stumbling through a mangy city-park, lighting a cigarette. This is Frankie (Argo's Scoot McNairy, who deserves an Oscar for this role). We all know someone like him. He's a nice enough guy, but mistakes and screw-ups seem to follow him like the plague.
Frankie and his Aussie cohort, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises), conspire to rob Markie Trattman's (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas) poker game. Markie is a local hood who famously ripped off his own game several years prior, gaining himself a rather questionable reputation amongst his, um... co-workers. But, miraculously, he received a pardon for his sins the last time around.
Frankie and Russell assume that if Markie's game gets hit again, everyone will figure that Markie did it. So they rob the game, making off with the aforementioned 100 grand. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a mob enforcer -- of sorts. It is his job to find out who stole the money and dispose of them. Sometimes Cogan works with another bag-man, a loutish drunk named Mickey (James Gandolfini, The Sopranos). To say that the two have vastly differing philosophies on murder would be an understatement.
The film's title refers to Cogan's philosophy. In his line of work, he has seen his fair share of gruesome and sad scenes. Men beg for their lives, peeing themselves with terror. He prefers to kill them "softly", giving them hope -- albeit false hope -- before doing the vicious deed. This brought to mind the modern American philosophy on warfare. The days of the more personal hand-to-hand combat on battlefields have passed. Today, a carefully placed drone attack (electronically dispatched from the sanctuary of American soil) will more than suffice.
Adapted beautifully from the novel "Cogan's Trade" (written by George V. Higgins, who also authored the source material for the 1973 Robert Mitchum classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), Killing Them Softly marks writer/director Andrew Dominick's second collaboration with Pitt. Their previous effort, the Oscar nominated masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a nearly flawless, emotionally devastating work. Killing Them Softly feels a bit closer to Dominick's 2000 debut, Chopper, a hilarious yet brutally violent romp through the mind of a (very likable) psychopath.
Dominick has become a master of the crime genre, and that is why I am surprised to hear that his next film will be a biopic of a rather famous actress named Marilyn Monroe. (Read: Fewer gangsters and guns.) But, I'll still be first in line to buy my ticket. He is unquestionably one of the smartest and most inventive filmmakers working today.
Note that the Higgins novel is set in the 1970s, but the film takes place during the 2008 U.S. election. The story's themes are so universal that even with Dominick's decision to update the time period, not a single bit of Higgins' nuance is lost.
But... here comes the esoteric part: As an audience member, I found myself in a microcosm of "modern business", seeing parallels in everything from the inner workings of the United States government to the hiring/firing of fry cooks at Burger King. To risk a cliché: The pay grades may change, but the bullsh*t stays the same. Every business operates exactly the same way, whether it's Viacom or VIA Rail. The day-to-day details and minutia aside, employers will always want to outsource their unpleasant tasks to someone else, be it cleaning toilets or killing people. Such is life. Such is business.
Jackie Cogan kills for a living, but he is no psychopath. He realizes that he is merely a cog in a machine -- a fully operational business that will live on, whether or not he decides to claim his paycheck. Those condemned to die will perish, even if Jackie refuses to kill them. So, why not put in a day's work and collect the bounty?
But, to kill softly is an utter lie. Pitt's character believes that he is doing his victims a favour by employing this tactic, but in reality, he is merely doing himself a favor. Jackie gets a "no fuss, no tears" kill. If he was really doing the victim a favour, he would let them escape with their life. But I suppose every occupation has its share of hypocrisies and compromises.
So the next time you see an uncivilized gentleman stealing a car or robbing a gas station, please remember: That guy is "at work" right now. He is a criminal. Breaking the law is his job. And he probably hates that job just as much as you hate yours.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.