A largely neglected gem from last year reminds clydefro of another low-key, Boston-set crime drama
It took nearly forty years to get another George V. Higgins novel on the screen but Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is so satisfying as to make the lengthy interim seem forgivable. In 1973, an adaptation of Higgins’ first published book The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released, with Peter Yates directing and Robert Mitchum in the title role. It made for a remarkable film, one where crime became poignant rather than glamorous and the criminals were disposable cogs in an unforgiving machine. Mitchum was never better. Yates made Boston seem harsh and undesirable. Cut forward thirty-nine years, as Dominik has spun his version of the Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade into a similarly atmospheric, unclean crime drama starring Brad Pitt and now renamed Killing Them Softly.
In the film, Pitt plays a well-connected hired gun who works for the Boston mob. He functions somewhat independently and associates with a variety of characters. His contact is a man known as Driver (Richard Jenkins), an intermediary connected to a larger, vaguely corporate entity likely involved in more legitimate business. Their conversations give the film part of its pulse. We tend to learn as much or more about what’s really going on during these meetings as we do through others’ actions. Apart from the opening twenty or so minutes, during which Pitt has not yet appeared, the film chooses to bask in dialogue over obvious plot machinations. One could feel that, as a result, the action is hampered and a kind of unwanted torpor develops. Such thinking would be to misunderstand the intentions of both Higgins and Dominik, as well as mistake this story for a more conventional outing.
A lack of apparent action doesn’t automatically translate into a film like Killing Them Softly being inert. Its gifts are far more generous than mere blood and violence (though it actually includes almost uncomfortable instances of both). The portrayal of crime in generally capitalistic terms, without much room for excitement or perverse joy, is an unusual gambit that nonetheless probably should feel more natural than it tends to in other films. There’s the idea here that the people like Pitt’s Cogan who survive and thrive in this world do so because they view their job like any other – a means of gaining money. Arguably successful is Dominik’s inclusion of almost constant background noise in the form of political rhetoric relating to the twin 2008 beasts of Bush’s economic stimulus plan and the Obama-McCain presidential election campaign. Initially, if not completely, the weaving of politics with Higgins’ crime tale can feel awkward. But other than setting up a dandy of a closing sequence, the frequent reminders by Dominik serve to further separate the film from its genre.
The idea, as Dominik has explained in interviews, is that a lack of regulation helped to trigger an economic crisis closely connected to gambling. It’s a situation applicable both to the 2008 financial situation and the events seen in the film. The need for the Pitt character to be involved comes from a robbery which was carried out by a couple of low-level ex-cons (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) on a card game controlled by a well-liked mob associate (Ray Liotta) who’d previously orchestrated a similar hold-up himself. If the comparison is a stretch then it’s really not that much of one. After all, if the stock market isn’t a form of gambling then what is it? For those who prefer their crime movies absent the political undercurrent, it’s worth noting that Killing Them Softly plays perfectly fine without getting hung up on the frequently seen and heard television screens featuring Bush or Obama. They exist in the background, as something to consider but not distract from the constantly simmering narrative.
More so even than usual, Pitt here is able to portray someone who’s clearly smart but still in possession of far more depth than we can initially see. His Cogan almost sneaks up on the viewer. We maybe don’t quite get his game at first but once we do it all seems to add up perfectly. Of course a guy with his experience and in such a position would be so businesslike and cutthroat. Maybe the initial tell as to the extent of Cogan’s character comes in his interactions with Mickey the New York hit man flown in for a job. Played to a tee by James Gandolfini, Mickey is a drunken mess torn apart by his latest failed marriage. On the surface, Cogan turns friend and therapist while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that there’s really no way Mickey will be able to follow through with the planned hit. He salvages what he can but is unafraid to admit his mistake and quickly, coldly moves on to search for a fix. He has no hesitation in tipping off the cops that Mickey’s jumped bail because Cogan recognizes exactly what it is that’s in his own best interest.
The takeaway is respect rather than admiration or awe. The distinction is crucial. Higgins, as far as I can tell, didn’t solicit sympathy for his characters. That’s certainly evident in Yates’ film, which has Mitchum’s Coyle experience an ignoble fate that nonetheless feels somehow apt. He’s not a character we root against in any way but he’s someone who is painted as knowing the score and, thus, susceptible to what occurs. The people in Killing Them Softly come across similarly. They either should know better, even if their actions don’t show it, or they wisely adhere to the established rules. It’s mightily impressive that Dominik could translate all of this into a film which, save for the economic crisis noise, feels like a picture from the seventies. The general ambivalence and ambiguity on display is a blissful thing for a certain kind of viewer. Killing Them Softly is a rare, extraordinary achievement that, despite some initial shrugs, should age beautifully.
Reviewed here is the dual-layered US DVD. Killing Them Softly is also being released in a BD+DVD+Digital Copy combo pack.
The progressive transfer is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image shows no signs of trouble. I’m actually no longer accustomed to viewing standard definition versions of new releases but this looks quite good to my eyes. It obviously doesn’t have the clarity or pinpoint crispness of an HD presentation but it’s pretty strong in its own right. The dark color palette, frequently looking like the inside of a bar, is represented well and detail and sharpness register as perfectly acceptable.
Audio is emitted through an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that handles the dialogue and occasional musical songs without a hitch. Depth and separation are extremely positive here and offer no concern. There are optional subtitles, which are white in color, available in English and Spanish.
Extra features are short but better than nothing. A Making-of (5:17) piece mostly has director Andrew Dominik speak on a few of his intentions and goes by quick enough to warrant your time. Four Deleted Scenes (9:51) add a little extra more plotwise to the movie without necessarily impacting it strongly. These are still easily worth a look.
Trailers for Silver Linings Playbook, The Master and Broken City play upon inserting the disc.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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