“America’s Not a Country. It’s Just a Business.”
Killing Them Softly
By heavens, there’s a blast from the past! Killing Them Softly is based on a novel by George V. Higgins, a name I haven’t heard in years, since maybe back to the seventies. My father loved that tough guy stuff and so I remember a lot of Higgins around the place; Higgins and his favourite, James Hadley Chase. I often wondered why more books from these two guys weren’t filmed. They seemed eminently cinematic as far as I recall.
Which doesn’t mean that the film at hand is completely successful. In fact it falls a little short of the very high mark it is attempting to reach. It is set in New Orleans in 2008, just as the global recession was kicking in, something that the film makes a lot of play with although I was not entirely sure why. As to the New Orleans background, that isn’t really important. It could have been anywhere that was suitably sleazy, which it definitely is and which perfectly complements the low-life characters that we’re watching.
First up is bottom echelon chancer Johnny Amato, who is played by Vincent Curatole (you may know him better as Johnny ‘Sack’ Sacramoni from The Sopranos) and who has had the ‘brilliant’ idea of robbing a Mob controlled Poker game. In a less than inspired moment’s non-thinking he hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). Since the former wasn’t at the front of the queue when they were handing out brains and the other is an Australian junkie with a big mouth you have to wonder how Amato has attained even the modest level of villainy that he has done.
With the robbery just about carried out, a half-hearted finger of suspicion is pointed at gangster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta showing the youngsters how it’s done) and Brad Pitt is called in as Jackie Cogan, who appears to be a kind of freelance enforcer. The films’ title comes from the way that Jackie prefers to murder people: softly, from a distance. He doesn’t like feelings and emotions getting in the way.
From the moment that Pitt appears on screen the film perks up. He may have taken a fair bit of stick for the recent dodgy Chanel commercial but his presence reminds us of why this actor is paid a lot of money. It is in his dealings with the nameless go-between played by Richard Jenkins that writer/director Andrew Dominick lays on his commentary on American economics the hardest. Jenkins’ character has to remind Cogan that they are dealing with a “total Corporate mentality” when it comes to organised crime. And Cogan is just as pragmatic when it comes to bargaining on the price of a second hit man: “I think in this economy we can get him for $15,000 for two days’ work.”
Enter the above-mentioned second hit man and when we see James Gandolfini trundling through an airport terminal it begins to feel like a Sopranos reunion night. This is the kind of thing that Gandolfini can do in his sleep and he doesn’t disappoint here as a burnt-out, aggressive and foul-mouthed drunk. “There’s no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who’s hooking”, he tells Pitt with the look of a man who knows whereof he speaks but the look on Pitt’s face says that we’ll have to take his word for it.
Gandolfini has two longish scenes and then vanishes, leaving me to wonder why they bothered to bring him in at all; although not as much as I wondered at Sam Shepherd and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance.
The action, such as it is, is punctuated by background snippets of the likes of George Bush Jr., Obama and Hank Paulson contemplating the looming economic crisis—which, as I mentioned already, I didn’t quite understand the context of. Based on the book, ‘Cogan’s Trade’, Killing Them Softly is worth seeing but I have to say that the biggest surprise for me was on learning afterwards that it clocks in at 97 minutes when it felt a lot longer. I’ve heard that there was originally a two-an-a-half hour cut and I can tell you frankly that I wouldn’t have made it through that. Another thing is that the ending will take you by surprise; and I’m not sure it’ll be in a good way!
I’ve saved the best for last, however. If I am glad I saw it for no other reason then it is because of this monologue from Pitt, commenting on Obama who is mouthing platitudes from a TV screen:
“We’re one people? A myth created by Thomas Jefferson. He’s an American saint because he wrote the words ‘all men are equal’, which 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 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 fucked his slave girl.
This guy [pointing at 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.”
I enjoyed that moment of screen time more than the whole of Lincoln!