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Killing Them Softly


‘…ahead of the curve in terms of portraying the inherent nihilism of today’s society…’

While on my ongoing Sopranos/Gandolfini tip, I had the chance to re-watch this vastly underrated crime story, which I first saw back in 2012, and has aged over the last decade somewhat better than I have. Ahead of the curve in terms of portraying the inherent nihilism of today’s society, Andrew Dominik’s terse, ferocious mob movie has little in the way of prolonged action, melodrama and the usual staple of mob movies, sentiment about family. That’s largely because central character Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is keen to avoid contact, conflict or attachment. ‘Killing them softly’, from a distance is his mantra; he’s an assassin who prefers not to know about his prey, and wisely keep his targets at arms length.

Killing Them Softly scores heavily in terms of one of my cinematic obsessions; saying something specific about the time it was made. Much as the protagonist of this year’s Red Rocket is introduced walking under a billboard for Trump, we see characters scuttle below huge hoardings advertising the electoral tussle between Obama and McCain. But today’s bleakness and moral turpitude is predicted here; the financial crisis has robbed us of our moral compass, without the crooks in charge being admonished, and the seeds of today’s slow-motion collapse are sewn. Two drug-addled low-lifes (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, both ideal) hold up a mob-boss card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) and escape with some loot; they haven’t organised an escape plan, and are sitting ducks as they get utterly wasted on drugs, waiting for the inevitable violent judgement of their peers. Jackie is assigned to pick up the pieces by Driver (Richard Jenkins), but has previous with one of the men, and brings in fellow assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) who doesn’t quite have Jackie’s strict attitude to his profession…

There’s reportedly a director’s cut of Killing Them Softly that’s an hour longer; that would be worth exhuming, because even at 97 minutes, Dominik’s film has a kick like a mule. The opening card-game raid is tense, and Jackie’s kills are brief yet visually astonishing; rarely has the business of murder seemed like such an otherworldly experience. Pitt submerges himself in the role of Jackie, yet never seems to caricature a character who conforms to so many hit-man clichés, but never seems constrained by them in his worldly POV. Watch as he listens to Mickey’s hotel-room monologues with mounting exasperation; what we see is the fin of the shark, the business end is all just below the waterline, where Jackie knows Mickey will be soon be punctured…

Audiences reportedly hated the result; testing outlet Cinemascore gave Killing Them Softly a rare F- rating, the same at mother! and presumably a badge of honour given the innovative quality of both of these films. This story came from Cogan’s Trade, a 1974 novel by George V Higgins, who also created the source material for one of the 1970’s greatest crime dramas, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the downbeat script never puts a foot wrong. This is an archly political film, not favouring one angle or another, but despairing of the lack of accountability that has bled into near anarchy today. Jackie monologues as he watches Obama’s victory speech on television; this fierce sentiment is, as Gandolfini’s character so eloquently puts it, one he can take ‘to the bank…’

My friend, Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words, “All men are created equal.” Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and ****ed his slave girl. This guy (Obama) wants to tell me we’re living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now ****ing pay me…’


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  1. How have I missed this? Can’t believe I haven’t seen it. Will check out the streams and try to find it. I wonder who’s played the most gangster roles, Liotta, De Niro, Peschi or Gandolfini.

    • Liotta is catching up, but I think De Niro probably has the most. If you like the sound of this, you’ll probably love it like I do; it’s one tough movie….

    • Good catch, fixed that, thanks.

      It’s rare that I’d wish to see another hour of a film, but this one could really use some more detail; it’s great anyways…

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