Killing Them Softly wants to be a metaphor for the economic collapse of 2008. In that light, it’s not very convincing. But as a gangster film about criminal personalities, it is pretty darn good. And as a metaphor for the culture of corporations, it almost works.
R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is set in the world of organized crime. It opens on the ground floor, the mailroom if you will. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) pulls a brash job for The Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) with his amateur Australian friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). They rob a “made” card game that they’re fairly sure can’t be traced back to them. Marky (Ray Liotta) runs the card game and he already robbed it once, later confessing that it was all a joke, so Squirrel and Frankie figure Marky will get blamed again. But Russell is inexperienced and kinda dumb, and he spends the money and fails to keep his lips sufficiently sealed.
Enter Jackie (Brad Pitt), a middle manager, a labor leader if you will, who worked his way up from the mailroom. Richard Jenkins plays a nameless representative of the white-collar side of the business. He’s called “Driver” in the credits, probably because they always meet in his car.
The card game is the economy, as the movie relentlessly suggests. “The economy” is tanking because of the “housing bubble burst” — the hit on the card game (like I said, the metaphor doesn’t work very well). When the “economy” is healthy and happy, money flows. When it’s fearful, everyone gets poorer. Reacting to the “housing bubble burst” is less about justice — everyone in the board room knows Marky isn’t dumb enough to pull the same stunt twice — and more about restoring confidence.
You might say Jackie is a Keynsian who thinks the game needs to keep going whether or not Marky was the culprit. Driver on the other hand is working from the top down, and the board doesn’t want to reinstate the game until they’re sure of who did it. They insist on bureaucratically punitive action against Marky. Jackie has a more common-sense, direct suggestion, which the board shoots down.
Mickey (James Gandolfini) is called in for the middle act to terminate an employee. His arrival also explains the title: If you know the guy you have to terminate, things get messy, weepy, emotional. Jackie prefers to kill them softly, from a distance — or if possible, hire a different guy to do it for you.
Watching the Clock
Killing Them Softly has a timeless quality that works very well. The movie is specifically set between Barack Obama’s first election and his inauguration, but take away one billboard and all the radios and the film could almost be set in the 1974. Nobody uses cell phones and the most prominent vehicles are muscle cars from that era. Pitt’s hair and Gandolfini’s sunglasses suggest an old school vintage that pass as “retro” but were once the height of fashion.
Many scenes in Killing Them Softly play slowly, and are all the richer for it. Scenes of dialogue aren’t rushed to expose plot points; they are the plot points. This is something Quentin Tarantino does too, though with a slightly more menacing and tense effect. One of the strongest scenes in the film is the hit on the card game, which unfolds in real time and is largely silent. One of the scenes of violence is slowed way down, as if directed by Sam Peckinpah, which gives the scene the weight of an operatic tragedy.
Director Andrew Dominik and his sound designer distort the audio in at least three scenes to make what’s happening on-screen more subjective: once while Marky is taking a beating, once while Russell trips on heroin, and over the opening titles. This “subjective sound” is much more effective at putting you in the scene than the intimacy of mere closeups.
So Killing Them Softly doesn’t quite work as the metaphor it wants to be. But as a lean and mean crime drama, it works pretty well. It’s the study of a single incident in the timeline of a crime organization, from beginning of crisis to end. The tightly controlled stylistic flourishes only add to the drama.