It’s valid to ask whether it matters if we even like a film. Some films don’t want to make that easy on us anyway. But how valid is a film if we don’t like it? And if we can accept that it has a certain amount of worth regardless, does that mean the film is doing its job? Released at the very end of November 2012 when it immediately died at the box office, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is set during the financial crisis that occurred during the 2008 election season which automatically brings a certain amount of didacticism to the storyline, a SHAMPOO sort of vibe to make us automatically question what it all means. I wasn’t entirely certain what it meant at the time myself, fresh after the re-election we’d just gone through and what a more innocent time that was. On that opening weekend KILLING THEM SOFTLY wasn’t exactly a film I particularly enjoyed aside from a few isolated moments but there were a few things in there that stuck with me. It’s possible the film means more now what with everything currently going on but I’m still not sure about that and it probably doesn’t matter very much, anyway. After all, these days it’s tough to figure out if any film matters. The way things are right now, it’s understandable to wonder if anything makes sense but that doesn’t mean any of it does.
During the financial crisis of the ’08 election season ex-con and dry cleaning business owner Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sacramoni on THE SOPRANOS) recruits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, Director Krennic in ROGUE ONE) to rob a mob-run card game, knowing that they have a good shot at getting away with it. He knows this since wiseguy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who runs the game once pulled the exact same heist, admitted that he robbed his own game, and basically got off with a slap on the wrist so naturally the powers that be will assume he’s pulling the same job again. The robbery goes off just as planned, with Trattman fingered right away but the mob brings in enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of the situation, figure out if Trattman was really the guy, then find who was really responsible, restoring order so the games can continue and the money can keep flowing.
“There’s a plague coming,” Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan says about this country at one point and looking around the real world at the moment I guess he was right. KILLING THEM SOFTLY was directed by Andrew Dominik, his follow-up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD which also starred Pitt; that film was long, languid, dreamy and haunting so it makes a certain amount of sense that the follow-up is basically the opposite—short, sharp, nasty, ugly. And unlike JESSE JAMES which was a film I wanted to dive deep into and just swim around for a while getting lost in its melancholy, I barely want to spend any time at all in KILLING ME SOFTLY and even now watching it again I wonder why the fuck I have to be in this world which is dirty and unpleasant and not much fun at all. Though set during a specific time, KILLING ME SOFTLY doesn’t take place anywhere in particular, that no name city gimmick which isn’t anything new but is presumably part of the point here, that this is what America has essentially become. The 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” which it’s based on was set in Boston (no surprise since it’s by George V. Higgins, author of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE; Dominik wrote the screenplay) and some dialogue indicates that’s where they probably are even though it doesn’t look anything like the place and was actually shot in New Orleans with nothing to identify it as such. If it wasn’t for the news reports playing on TV and campaign billboards overhead we’d barely know when the film is set anyway; unless I’m mistaken, there aren’t even any cell phones used, as if this low level mob world really is stuck back in the 70s. It’s easy to believe that nobody would get decent cell reception anyway since from the looks of things that plague Jackie Cogan talks about has already arrived, just as it’s arrived for us now, the entire nameless city having the look of scorched earth and you just know that nothing will ever grow there again. Which is starting to sound familiar.
The narrative bluntly parallels the two financial crises, the real world intersecting with the mob world, bickering over who’s going to get punished for this robbery whether it was their fault or not and it’s a little heavy handed, snatches of W.
speeches practically commenting directly on plot developments. Since it becomes the point more than anything it all overwhelms the narrative but since there really isn’t anyone to ‘care’ about it all becomes a little clinical, almost as if we were watching a film about a worldwide financial crisis set on another planet. Even some of the plot developments are basically reported to us, information learned offscreen then reported secondhand later on. On a purely cinematic level the whole thing becomes so skillful in how alienating it’s willing to be that I kind of admire how the approach all becomes more about the scummy vibe than anything. Even the sound mix is downright Lynchian at times making each rundown building seem alive with subterranean noises. The camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (recently the DP of both LION and ROGUE ONE) is almost reptilian in the way it seems to follow behind the characters and at times it’s a little mesmerizing. The big robbery sequence is particularly impressive in how it drags that quiet tension out even with those stupid dishwashing gloves they have on, playing almost as a short film in itself with minimal dialogue and in that silence we can tell exactly what the card players are thinking as well as how Ray Liotta’s poor bastard Trattman knows they’re thinking he’s in on all this. It’s isolated moments like that which work best throughout, not necessarily connected to the larger narrative as if the film itself can’t ever bother to get interested in the actual story, knowing that some clarity to a few story beats would help but not bothering—how many scenes are even in the film? 25? 30? Even if Dominik decided that the fractured nature of the storytelling was more appropriate at least he shoots the hell out of some of those individual moments and in its own way there’s barely a wrong shot in the film, the camera always knowing who to fix on at any moment and how far away to stay from them, keeping scenes visually active by breaking them up into sections but too often the wordiness of the dialogue gets lost in it all as if Dominik was staging for the visuals instead of the dialogue. To be honest it was a help when I decided to turn on the subtitles to help follow along with the plot which clarified a few things but also made me wonder about holes that weren’t plugged in, making the film seem more like a collection of stylish scenes than a complete story.
Maybe that’s partly why it all seems to end up in kind of a dead end since that story never seems to matter as much as the message and it’s a film where a few of the alleged leads barely even mattered anyway which is part of the point, just like plenty of people in the real world barely seem to matter either. I’m not even sure how interested it is in subverting the expectations of being a genre piece let alone just playing as a straight ahead crime thriller. It also feels like pieces are missing so it’s no surprise to read that the initial cut was considerably longer—Sam Shepherd appears briefly as a character who is referred to throughout, as if there’s a lot of backstory involving him, but in the final version it’s little more than a cameo. It’s left to us to find the meaning in some of those pieces, the phrase ‘smart guys’ heard a few times as in “We’re not the only smart guys who are going to think of this” but those supposed brains don’t take any of them very far. Frankie and Russell are only doing the job because there’s nothing better to do, at least one of them perfectly happy to sit around in a drugged out haze for ten minutes of screentime while the other gets more and more convinced that his life isn’t worth a damn.
Brad Pitt, the marquee name playing the alleged lead role, doesn’t turn up until close to a third of the way into this ninety-odd minute movie and it’s almost as if he becomes the main character by default since nobody else has the inclination to take on that responsibility so he only does it to get all this over with. He’s not an audience surrogate—in some ways that’s Scoot McNairy’s character, representing all of us who get fucked over and are barely even the lead characters in our own story. Pitt, on the other hand, introduced as Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” is heard, lyrics telling us this is the man “who knows who to free and who to blame”. In this world he may be The Man, the one who knows how to get the fucking job done, more than the guys in charge do, but he’s still just a middle man. It doesn’t matter what he believes, it doesn’t even matter what the truth is. If people think one guy did it, he did it. Things just need to get back to normal. It’s like there are three levels to these crooks—the dregs on the bottom who are just trying to scrape by, the ones who actually can get the job done but usually get fucked and the (mostly unseen) money men on top who just want the money continually flowing to them so they get more. That never changes. It’s all done with pitch dark humor as chirpy song cues like “Live Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” play as it goes pummeling into the brick wall of bleakness. There’s a film to be made featuring a running gag where a mob tough guy like Ray Liotta is beaten up multiple times as other mob guys calmly discuss the situation but this one willingly takes it into nastiness, ugliness and not only wants to be ugly since that’s the way the world is, it has to be.
And much of the reason I’m writing about the film at all involves the great and much-missed James Gandolfini, in for just a few scenes as fellow hitman Mickey Fallon but those scenes wind up transforming the film, obviously even more now than they did at the time. Introduced getting off a plane from New York as Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” plays with a few W. Bush soundbites cutting in to the imagery, from the moment we see him he’s not at all the tough guy we’re expecting, but a walking shambles who looks like he’s going to fall over any second. He’s the Willy Loman of hitmen, dragging his tiny suitcase alongside him, a lifelong scumbag facing jail time for the smallest possible reason considering all the shit he’s already done and it’s so fucking poignant. Essentially, James Gandolfini is Twentieth Century America, lumbering his way into this modern world and a total fucking mess, downing a huge beer almost in one gulp with the clock ruthlessly ticking away from him. This wasn’t the actor’s final role but it’s still hard not to associate his death less than a year later with this and this was one of the things I flashed on after hearing he died, with much of the rest of the film already having left me and it’s still what I think about now. Granted, parts work as an extension of certain themes dealt with better during the run of THE SOPRANOS and this is almost a mirror version of Tony a few extra years down the line having safely walked out of Holsten’s (as we all know he did) after eating those onion rings but we know Tony himself would never put up with this shit. The guy here has totally given up, drifting off in his mind to boozing and whores and the way things never really were and ready to explode if someone suggests otherwise so it’s all for the best if he just fades away offscreen, never seen again. That’s two SOPRANOS actors along with the lead of GOODFELLAS in this film meant to drain away what they once were so it’s all now just another business run by white guys, here in the form of go-between Richard Jenkins, no longer any difference between them and the politicians fretting about Wall Street.
The film has those scenes, those moments, which become so strong it almost doesn’t matter about vague confusion brought on by the plot or how the statement willingly overwhelms the narrative, whatever narrative there is. Since it tries to go to extremes, even on that level it doesn’t always work for me like the death scene scored to Ketty Lester singing “Love Letters”, maybe the biggest misstep in the film partly since BLUE VELVET already owns that song but also because the overwhelming CGI imagery of the bloodletting misses what’s happening between the people involved. At least some of KILLING THEM SOFTLY has stayed with me, I’ll give it that much, moments like Gandolfini chewing out that waiter bringing him his drinks or Pitt telling a lackey to put back the meager tip of a dollar he just left on a table. And there’s the ’08 election which everyone is aware of (Gandolfini complains about TV showing "all that election shit" in a deleted bit on the Blu) but, just like in SHAMPOO, few seem to actually care what happens because what will it matter. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD always makes me sad when I watch it, getting lost in that feeling of regret and destroyed dreams but this one just makes me want to take a shower to scrub all this out of my head so I guess the film is doing its job. Set in 2008 and made in 2012, in 2017 it makes more sense than it ever did. Maybe when it came out the way it was saying that hope and change thing was bullshit wasn’t what we wanted to hear. Now, several years after that and in the shit we’re in right now it doesn’t seem like it goes far enough. “The world is shit. We’re all just on our own,” goes some dialogue late in the film, spoken by someone who knows all too well what’s coming.
It all ends on Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, more or less the lead, talking about money. He’s the only one in the movie who can get things done and even he’s pissed off over whether he’s going to get paid. Then President-Elect Obama gives his victory speech as Pitt walks through the streets, fireworks going off and an old timey version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” heard but no one cares about the hope supposedly in the air. Now that we’ve arrived on the other side of all that possibility, it’s pretty clear that things aren’t going to suddenly get better since, as we all know, it’s easier to make things bad than to make them good. All that matters is if someone keeps the money flowing. And yes, none of us are innocent either. We’ve all fucked over someone. We’ve all been fucked. We all sob about it in the middle of the night while “Windmills of Your Mind” plays, at least that’s what I assume. Jackie Cogan talks about wanting to keep a distance from that carnage since getting attached to any of this, getting emotional, is just trouble. Even guilt is a waste of time. It’s not a movie I particularly enjoy but it does feel valid and so fucking what how it makes me feel. Partly because it’s skillfully made, partly because of Gandolfini, partly because of how willingly alienating it is, partly because I suspect it’s more than a little bit right as we face 2017.
Some of the best Brad Pitt roles are when he seems to know the entire film isn’t on his shoulders so he’s able to relax, it's interesting just to watch him settle in as the scene plays out. He holds back at the right times here, letting certain actors he’s in scenes with take the spotlight particularly during Gandolfini’s scenes, waiting for just the right moment to explode. In totally nailing the film's last moment he also plays very well against Richard Jenkins’ dry annoyance which makes for some of the best comic moments in the film--the way Jenkins plays it in particular makes me wonder how early 70s Peckinpah might have approached this material. Along with the tragic majesty of James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn make for an impressive pair of Ratso Rizzo-Rosencrantz/Guildensterns, bringing a pathetic humanity to the film with the fear in their eyes giving off a palpable stench. It’s especially true with McNairy over multiple viewings playing a guy who almost has a few intelligent thoughts poking out of his brain only he knows that he’s fucked from the get go. It’s tough to tell how much the film really cares about that—the clinical approach makes me wish we got more of such moments from some of the actors, like Ray Liotta who seems maybe cast more for who he is than what he can do. And speaking of Peckinpah, even he had more of an interest in woman and there are almost none here, mostly only talked about in not always very nice ways--pretty much the only female speaking role is the hooker played by Linara Washington. When we do hear about others they’re wives, girlfriends and most of what’s said involves cluelessness and regrets, just as they’re clueless about everything else. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan stays either unimpressed or just silent, knowing there’s nothing to say. Maybe he’s just seen it all already.
You’re all alone, the film says, not in a community. You’re by yourself. Not a nice message, but lately it seems to be the way it is. And what does it matter if I don’t like the film anyway. It’s not asking me to like it, it’s merely displaying a view of the world from the vantage point of some pretty good seats facing scorched earth. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is bleak and unpleasant but of course we all know what that’s like these days. Just because I can’t bring myself to ‘like’ it, whatever that matters anyway, doesn’t mean I disregard it. And you don’t have to like any movie. You could simply walk out of the theater, shut it off, leave the room, move on to the next one. But once you’ve seen a film, even part of it, you still might be forced to remember it. It’s in your life. There’s nothing you can do about that and sometimes you still may even think about it. Doesn’t mean you want to. Doesn’t mean that life is fair because it’s not. The cruelty goes on. There are plenty of people ready to see to that and keep on making sure they kill you softly.