Killing Them Softly has been on my list of films to watch. I always see it on sale but never actually buy it, saying I’ll get it next time. But eventually, I went and got it after hearing great things about it, so here’s my review.
Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta and is written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film follows mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) as he is brought into solve the economic crisis that has hit the mob world.
While the original novel is set during the mid 1970s, Killing Them Softly updates the story to late 2008, using the banking crisis and the election of Barack Obama to parallel the main story in the film. This dual narrative is played throughout radio and televisions in the world, almost giving a subtle commentary that the mobsters and racketeers at the bottom of the ladder are just as sleazy as the bankers at the top.
Despite being tied to the banking crisis, the story almost feels timeless, with the clothing styles of the characters, the cars they drive and especially with the choice of music that plays throughout the film. The music flits between decades with songs like Johnny Cash’s “When The Man Comes Around“, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong and “Love Letters” by Kitty Lester, making the film a mash up of the 2000s and of the early 50s and 60s. This reuse of music ties in with how the central story is about characters doing the same things over and over again, it’s a clever way to tell us, the audience, that this is just a routine occurrence and it’s a normal day for the characters on screen.
Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as hitman Jackie Cogan, a man who observes everything, doesn’t get involved and is somehow oddly delicate about his job of murdering people. As he remarks to Richard Jenkins during the film, when tasked with killing someone, he likes to “kill them softly.” James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta are the most fascinating characters, who are so high on their own machismo and place with the male-dominated world of the mafia that when they are in turmoil they start crying and wailing, turning into scared little children. Richard Jenkins plays the role he has done in a million other films, as the older man who has stuck around for longer than he should have, but his interactions with Brad Pitt in the film make up for the rather stereotypical casting.
I counted only four women in the film (two of which aren’t on screen, and the other two aren’t on it for less than a few seconds), all of whom are described or characterised by sex or their gender. It’s a film that focuses on the male characters and how they talk to each other and how they describe the women around them, showing that these men (unlike the more romanticised gangsters of years before) should not be looked up to and are rotten to the core. They are despicable, idiotic and diseased, but that makes the film even more enjoyable to watch.
For once, I don’t have to say the film was either too long or too short. Much of my criticism with films nowadays is that directors don’t know how to pace their films, leaving it over-bloated or insubstantial. Killing Them Softly only clocks in at around 90 minutes and it’s the perfect length for the film. Every scene feels like it’s been thought out methodically and has an actual reason for belonging in the film, whether it adds a little bit of back-story to a character or adds more to the puzzle of the story. The last part of dialogue between Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins is an excellent way to end the film by tying in the banking crisis storyline without becoming preachy, and the last line by Brad Pitt is like a bullet in the way in punches to the heart of his character and his motivation.
In conclusion, Killing Them Softly feels like it takes some of the most overused genre conventions of the gangster film but creates a completely different take on them. If you can stand the hateful characters, the explosive and bloody violence and the ever present swearing, you’ll have a blast.
Score: 10/10 One of the greatest gangster films ever created.