There’s a certain pattern to the Soprano’s-style story of Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller from Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Chopper). Essentially, you get a conversation between two people that starts off interesting but eventually ends up going for far too long – if you’re lucky it might perk up a bit towards the end. The topic will vary from whom to whack next to the economics of running the mob, though there’s also the obligatory profanities and sex and drugs sojourns. Once this conversation has run its course the scene will switch to one of two things: another discussion that threatens intensity or a brief scene of some actual ‘business’ in motion. The business here being the aforementioned whacking of individuals that had the misfortune of falling on the mob’s naughty list. And then it’s back to two people talking.
It’s all very controlled, which ironically seems to underscore the corporate mentality that the film, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, uses to describe the mob. According to Dominik, the same kind of structures we use to define businesses and corporations can be applied to the mob and nations and it’s this drive for commercial efficiency that’s the overarching theme of the film. There’s even a not-so-subtle subplot that likens the events of the story to the economic crisis, with an incredibly obvious commentary on the towering greed of institutions, the politics of fast, necessary decision-making and the power of public opinion.
They’re reasonable observations too, and the film arrives at them logically enough. The plot starts off by following two worthless grunts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are hired by a gangster called the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) to rob a local high stakes poker game. The catch is that the game is protected by the mob, but the trio think that they can frame the sleeze who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), since he’s previously admitted to being behind a similar robbery.
Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the cool and efficient hitman who’s called in to sort out the aftermath of the robbery. He deals with a nameless, mysterious lawyer-type character (Richard Jenkins) who represents the interests of some upper-echelon mobsters. Cogan’s trade (oh, so that’s why that’s the title of the book!) is to find out who’s behind the heist and eliminate them, and in the process he may or may not also have to deal with Trattman since public opinion holds that he’s the one who’s responsible.
Overall, Killing Them Softly boasts a tight, well-drawn narrative that only occasionally fumbles due to dialogue that sometimes fails to match the intensity of the action scenes. These sequences are rare but brutal, and all are spectacularly staged thanks to Dominik who masterfully leverages the tension to keep you on the edge of your seat. Meanwhile, some typical mobster-variety humour helps to inject a bit of crude lightness into the proceedings. James Gandolfini even turns up at one point in what is little more than a glorified cameo – it seems to me that he’s really only in the film to generate interest from fans of The Sopranos. He’s involved in a couple of those discussions between two people but his character ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere and most of his scenes could have been cut back a bit in order to focus on the meat of the story. Even so, with exceptional performances across the board, Killing Them Softly is a fine addition to the ranks of quality mobster entertainment. In particular, keep an ear out for the last line – it’s absolute gold.
Killing Them Softly is an expertly crafted crime thriller with both strong acting and a little something to say about the socio-economic sphere.