With The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director Andrew Dominik and star/producer Brad Pitt gave us one of the most startlingly original westerns ever made, a film that upset the conventions of the genre at every turn while still respecting it. A similar approach is taken toward the crime genre with the two’s latest film Killing Them Softly, adapted from the George V. Higgins novel Coogan’s Trade.
The film follows two crooks played by Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) as they rip off card game run by Ray Liotta in the fall of 2008 New Orleans. Liotta’s character heisted his card game before, leaving the guys to believe that he’ll take the fall and they’ll be in the clear. But they weren’t counting on the unseen syndicate, represented by a middle-manager-type played by Richard Jenkins, hiring Brad Pitt’s fixer character to ruthlessly clean up the mess.
Killing Them Softly obviously has an affinity for the gritty crime dramas of the seventies like Straight Time and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (another Higgins adaptation), as evidenced by the numerous badass cars of that era, the hair and beard choices, the constant cigarette smoking, and numerous great, rough faces that pop up like Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack from The Sopranos). There’s also some great black humor and funny, rambling dialogue in the film that recalls the post-Tarantino films of the nineties. For example, a scene where McNairy and Mendelsohn discuss the best kind of guy to make your fuck partner while in prison or another where Mendelsohn foolishly brings dish gloves to the heist instead of medical ones.
But though there are moments of classic movie cool and crime fun, what strikes hardest is the film’s subversion of those kinds of scenes. The killers in this film do not coolly blow their targets away without another thought but instead dislike violence and dishing out hurt. Nobody looks tough when they’re beaten or about to die either, the victim always crumbling under pressure, crying or vomiting. There are no shootouts or chases, just efficient, disgusting murder, and the big robbery scene – though agonizingly intense – does not ever hit the beats you expect it to.
Some critics have been going after the film for its heavy-handedness in drawing parallels to country’s recession of ‘08 and how even the underworld took a hit at the time. Yes, there are too many scenes of political speeches on a bar TV or car radio that our characters are inhabiting and the message is far from subtle, but I don’t get how these scenes seemed to spoil the whole movie for some viewers. I personally had some problems with some on-the-nose soundtrack choices, like Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” playing during Pitt’s intro scene or “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground popping up when two characters are, you guessed it, shooting up.
But these are small quibbles to my mind in a film that is such a fresh take on a familiar genre, with Dominik experimenting in tremendous ways both style- and storytelling-wise. Whether or not Killing Them Softly will gain the respect it deserves a few years from now the same way Assassination did remains to be seen. I can imagine some will, like with last year’s Drive, be disappointed with the ways in which the film diverges from the type of film it’s advertised as, but those with an open mind are in for a real gem. Join the cult early, dear reader, and go see Killing Them Softly and discover that the crime film is alive, well and full of possibilities in these, the final days of civilization.