Killing Them Softly

Economies of scale
Andrew Dominik
Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini
The Setup: 
Crime is committed, criminals are hunted and killed.

This is a film about a folksinger with an unusual insight into women's pain, and two women who are moved by his words, played by Lauren Hill and Roberta Flack.

No, silly, it's the new film by Andrew Dominik, who last brought us The Assassination of Jesse James, which me and my friend quite liked, and concerns the machinations that take place in the criminal underworld to avenge the robbery of an underground card game. I do like a good, gritty noirish crime movie, and this one wasn't getting great reviews, which actually made me more interested to see it. The main criticism is that it is filled with prominent TV and radio speeches from the economic crisis right before Obama's first election, which kind of hits you over the head, repeatedly, with the very important point this movie is trying to make. What I didn't realize going in is that when they say "prominent," they mean "near-constant."

So there are two criminal lowlifes, Frankie and Russell, brought into a crime by Squirrel. Frankie is played by Scott McNairy, who I didn't recognize until halfway through as the doubting Thomas from Argo. Russell is a strung-out Australian whom a normal person wouldn't trust with safety scissors. Squirrel tells them that Marky, thug played by Ray Liotta, once robbed his own card game, and in a later drunken haze, bragged about it. So now, if his game gets robbed, everyone will assume it was him, and they'll get away free. If you don't think it probably won't work out as smoothly as all that, you are probably not a strung-out criminal lowlife.

So they knock over the game, wearing rubber dishwashing gloves and nylons through which you can clearly see their faces. The scene manages to be suspenseful, even though you know they get away with it, or we wouldn't have the rest of the movie. Soon Brad Pitt as Cogan is brought in, and he has discussions with Richard Jenkins, liaison to the mob, who is organizing the reprisals. Jenkins complains that the crime has caused all underground card games to close, which means that a little underground economy is shut down. He has to take all of Cogan's requests for expenses to the mob, who he describes as corporate and committe-like. During the set up, the robbery, and all the scenes in the car, either the TV or radio is on, with speeches about the economy. Do hired killers and the whole criminals underworld really always listen to political talk radio? Who knows, maybe they do.

There is a notable scene in which much technique is employed to show that a drugged-up Russell is slipping in and out of consciousness during an important conversation with Frankie. Then James Gandolfini as Nicky arrives to kill one of the guys (it is decided that two different killers should kill one guy each), and shows himself to be a hothead who really, REALLY likes his drink. Cogan is clearly worried about his abilities. There is more economic talk as Nicky declines additional money to kill both guys, but decides to kill just one in the interest of career longevity. In here, two guys beat up Marky, during which you will notice the amped-up, bone-crunching sound design. The more talk with Jenkins. This movie invites comparison to Drive in that you have a great deal of low-key yet highly-aestheticized talk scenes, punctuated by bursts of highly-aestheticized violence.

Eventually, for a reason I thought was somewhat arbitrary, Cogan decides to kill Marky. This takes place in a showcase scene in which he pulls up next door and we go super slo-mo as the bullets fly and the glass shatters, hearing the song "Love Letters" as bits of glass fly and brain matter explodes outward like a flower. Then Cogan goes to see Nicky, who has been drinking in his hotel room and screwing hookers, one of whom we encounter (and is the only woman in the movie). They argue about how whether her $100 fee should have included her ass. Soon Cogan tells Jenkins that Nicky is too far gone to finish the job, and it will require another thousand, an expense that Jenkins says he will have to get approved. Gandolfini is never again seen in the film.

Goes on, somewhat arbitrarily, then Russell is arrested, and Cogan shows up to intimidate Frankie. He takes Frankie with him to assassinate Squirrel, then they take off and soon enough, he kills Frankie. This is actually the last twenty minutes of the movie, but that's about all that happens. Then please fasten your seatbelts for the final, scathing judgement of America!

Cogan goes to collect his money from Jenkins in a bar where, on the television, Obama is delivering his acceptance speech. Cogan finds that Jenkins has given him only two-thirds of the money he was expecting, which he is told is "recession pricing." Obama delivers words about how we're all one people, causing Cogan to go onto a rant about this is just the official, publicly-acceptable line, just the way Jefferson was supposedly for equality while at the same time sleeping with a slave and keeping his children in slavery, concluding by saying "America's not a country, it's a business. Now give me my money." Screen goes black--The End!

Now you may require a moment or two to recover from the stinging indictment you have just received, and may still be reeling from the stunning statement about your country--in whose machinations you are COMPLICIT! A stunning statement you may simply be too stupid to have realized by yourself, causing you to require an Australian director to spoon feed it to you. Please take all the time you need, and rejoin us when you're ready.

So basically, the movie attempts to demonstrate that everything that happens in America is a business, every relationship an economy. Every single relationship in the movie is an economy, from the closed card games which are no longer bringing in money, to the "corporate" mob who have to approve hit man expenses, all the way down to the prostitute and what $100 will or will not buy. So in a way, I didn't mind the ubiquity of the political talk, because it underscores the ubiquity of economics in every aspect of American life as portrayed here. Whether it's a rich enough point to build an entire film around is another question.

And the hammering of the point turns out not to be the film's biggest problem. Ultimately, it's a very small story--crime is committed, guilty are killed--and there are no character arcs, no development, no secrets revealed. Cogan, in this film, is not an interesting or rich character, like the title role in Killer Joe. There is style, but the style itself never becomes the story, as in Drive. You have the showcase killing sequence in the car, with slo-mo bullets and flying shards of glass, complete with ironic counterpoint song, but it kind of comes out of nowhere and gives one nothing. If the film were ABOUT violence, it would fit in, but since the film is about economics, a sequence demonstrating the unexpected beauty of violence just seems like it's on loan from another film. And the very ostentatious sequence where Russell is coming in and out of consciousness... great, but what about the larger story makes such a obvious stylistic move necessary? Yes, it describes his state of mind, but couldn't the same thing have been accomplished by merely seeing Russell nodding off, without pulling us all out of the story and making us stare at the style?

In the end, it won't kill you, softly or otherwise, but with Drive and Killer Joe having come out within the past year, there's really not much reason for anyone to bother with this film at all.

Should you watch it: 

See Drive and Killer Joe first.