Killing Them Softly

Nov 28, 2012

It's a small Mob story with  big dialogue.

Killing Them Softly
Grade: A-
Director: Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Screenplay: Dominik from George V. Higgins novel
Cast: Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Ray Liotta (Smokin’ Aces)
Rating: R
Runtime: 87 min.
by John DeSando

“Very few guys know me.” Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)

Small time hoods and godfathers have given filmmakers ample cause to celebrate character-driven drama, in which the modest details of dialect and action seem almost Russian novelistic on the big screen.

Such is the minimalist charm of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, an appropriate title given the spare use of violence, which is nonetheless fanciful and impressionistic when it happens.  Some may call slo-mo a cliché by now, but it seems to me an evocation of memory that expands the moment.

Upon reflection about the impressionistic violence, I liked the movie even more because the emphasis is so obviously on character. Since that is the way of the source from crime writer George V. Higgins, it all works even better. Updated to 2008, the film repeatedly overlays or cuts to political and business references such as George Bush speaking on the economy, which is quickly deteriorating like the afterglow of the heist.

Given that the hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is sensitive about murdering up close, the emphasis on the psychology of the murders is called for. He says, “They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill 'em softly. From a distance.”

The plot is not intricate: Cogan is called in by the Mob (exemplified by the suited, Richard Jenkins’ seemingly shy Driver) to avenge the heist of its “protected” poker game. As avenging angel Jackie closes in on the perps, he talks more than he kills, and Dominik overlays several scenes with ‘30’s pop culture ballads like Love letters and It’s only a Paper Moon.  It’s a cynical take on a cynical business.

Because I am convinced this is one of the best screenplays this year, allow me to quote Jackie’s final speech after he discovers the mob has short-changed him.  Note the emphasis on the recurring theme that, like America, crime is a business:

“My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint. Because he wrote the words all men are created equal, words he clearly didn't believe since he allowed his now children to live in slavery. He's a rich wine snob who's sick of paying taxes to the Brits.

“So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy 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 fuckin' pay me.”

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
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