The movie’s poster says it all: a pair of shades reflecting the American flag, and a gun where the nose and mouth would be. In Killing Them Softly, playing today at the Cannes Film Festival and opening in the U.S. September 21, screenwriter-director Andrew Dominik wants you to know that the underworld is our world, with the same top-dog-eats-little-dog amorality, just expressed with naked ruthlessness. “This isn’t a country, this is America. And America is a business.”
It’s September 2008, at the national intersection of Obama-McCain Campaign and Lehman Brothers Meltdown, and the speaker is Jackie Cogan. Incarnated by Brad Pitt as a smart, supercool enforcer of gangland and corporate priorities, he is the criminal-industrial complex’s own Terminator, a machine as sleek, functional and unerring as his .44. Sometimes he kills guys, other times he hires a guy to kill a guy, stressing to the prospective hitman (The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini) that, “In this economy, 15 [thousand dollars] sounds pretty good for two days’ work.” But Cogan’s not in charge; he takes orders from, and haggles over fees with, the taciturn lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who represents various Messrs. Big. You could call Cogan the underworld equivalent of a powerful but mid-level Wall Street sharpie, or a lobbyist for an oil company, doing the dirty work for mysterious master manipulators.
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Set in South Boston but shot in Louisiana, perhaps so Pitt could go home for dinner, this updated adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade reunites the star with the Australian director who boosted Pitt’s indie cred with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a critically praised renegade Western that audiences shunned.
The new movie has Dominik running for cover in a genre film — a cautious, subpar grafting of the immortal Pulp Fiction — with art-house pretensions: a pallid palette, a doctrinaire left-wing take on American mores, the application of anachronistic tunes (Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters” from the ’60s, Cliff Edwards’ “Paper Moon” from the ’30s) to underline murders, and way too much faith in the extemporaneous skills of its actors. At times you might swear you’re looking at the film’s outtake reel, or a rehearsal video of infertile improvs. Despite enough pummeling to flatten Rocky Balboa in all six movies, the only thing that truly rewards your attendance is Pitt in another effortless star performance. Fresh from his 2011 trifecta of The Tree of Life, Moneyball and Happy Feet Two, he shows again how to elevate a film with skill, charisma and no sweat.
When a high-stakes card game under mob protection gets raided by two outsiders, Cogan is charged with finding and extinguishing the perps. Suspicion falls on the card game’s manager, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who was thought to have fleeced his own game once before. But the scam’s real “brains” — a term to be used loosely in a movie where virtually everyone but Cogan is a depressive alcoholic, a brain-addled junkie or an idiot — is one John “The Squirrel” Amato (another Sopranos veteran, Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny Sack; nice to see him alive again, for a while). Calculating that Markie would be fingered for a second heist, The Squirrel has engaged the services of two ex-cons, Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, from Animal Kingdom). It is hardly a SPOILER to note that none of the aforementioned will survive to the closing credits.
In charge and at ease with lowlife losers and pricey attorneys, Cogan gets the full star treatment: when he shuts (does not slam) a car door, the whole vehicle quakes, and the camera too, as if in jellied awe. He’s inside the mob and outside, above it, telling Frankie, “Very few guys know me”; Angels of Death do not socialize. Cogan’s life beyond his profession is unexplored; he is his job. And, he confesses, he doesn’t much care for some of the particulars. In their moments before the fatal gunshot, Cogan says, victims “get touchy-feely. Emotional, not fun, lot of fuss. They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they call for their mothers. It’s embarrassing. I like to kill them softly, from a distance, not close enough for feelings – don’t like feelings, don’t want to think about ‘em.”
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What Killing Them Softly thinks about — and shows with both relish and ketchup — is the impact and etiquette of criminal brutality. Cogan finds one of his marks at a stoplight: a super slo-mo of the cocked gun, the sailing bullet, the crimson geysering from the back of the victim’s head. When another man is shot, the top of his skull comes off like a cheap toupee. Markie’s mauling at the fists of two thugs hired by Cogan is a bloody marvel of sadism and exaggerated sound effects. But wait, did we say etiquette? Sure: Toward the end of his beating, Markie breaks a cardinal crime rule: You don’t cough up blood chunks on your assailant’s shoes. That gets him an extra few kicks in the face.
In this all-male milieu — except for a call girl who gets a few lines, no woman speaks — and with Higgins’ salty, purposeful dialogue largely reduced to freakin’ this and fuggin’ that, reputation is more important than reality. “It’s not what you been doin’,” Cogan tells Frankie, “it’s what guys think you been doin’.” What most of them (aside from Cogan) are doing is talking about old crimes.
In one terrific vignette, Russell recalls a dognapping caper: he’d steal expensive pooches and take them to Florida for resale. His accomplice Kenny (the single-named actor Slaine) needs to dispose of their hot car, so he puts a lighted rag in the gas tank. No worries, done it a million times. The car explodes, zooms backward and runs over Kenny — all in one shot. It’s a sight gag whose violence and elegance are worthy of a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon, or an early episode of South Park (“Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”). For a guy to commit a crime with a showman’s aplomb, then get totaled by his own incompetence: that’s a sour vision of America worth cherishing.