The Reel Deal
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“THE STATE OF THE UNION”
Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik’s first film since the woefully underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a mob movie like none I’ve seen before. There are few things that, on the surface, seem less relevant today. Like the western, the mob movie’s glory days are long over. And yet, as soon as you’re ready to write a genre off, there’s always someone who comes along to reinvent the wheel, and the genre keeps rolling on down the road, revitalized through reformulation. In 2007, who’d have thought that arguably the year’s three best movies–P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and the aforementioned Andrew Dominik film The Assassination of Jesse James…–would all be on some level deconstructions of the all-but-deceased western genre? Likewise, I’d have never guessed that in 2012, one of the best films of the year would be a deconstruction of the mob movie set against the backdrop of America’s descent into economic collapse and Obama’s meteoric rise to the White House.
Killing Them Softly conjures up the ghosts of crime films past, reminding us of the Godfathers and the Goodfellas that have come before, and then turns them on their heads, and makes them au courant–literally placing them in a past so recent that it is basically the present (specifically: the 2008 U.S. presidential election). The mob today is obviously less powerful, and therefore less glamorous, than in the days of yesteryear, and the film explores this contemporary unglamorousness. So, with clips of America’s economic collapse continually playing in the background on television screens and radio speakers, a smaller economic collapse takes place: a dilapidated mob runs a high-stakes cardgame that gets knocked over by a couple of thugs. What’s the mob to do? Call in Jackie Cogan (played brilliantly by Brad Pitt, whose latter-day career, has supplied us with one great performance after another) to clean up the mess.
By the end of the film, in both word and deed, the viewer witnesses Jackie Cogan’s “common man” version of the State of the Union address. And, let me just warn you, Cogan may not be able to summon the highfalutin eloquence of a wordsmith like Barack Obama, nor is his message one of hope and change–in fact, it is a counterbalance to Obama’s optimistic vision–but it is no less an honest depiction of America. Andrew Dominik gives his mob movie its thematic depth through this opaque political lens. Some have bemoaned the political tropes, and found these allegorical aspects to be a bit too heavy-handed, but even if the political stuff is certainly in your face for most of the film, I don’t think it’s the simple one-for-one metaphor that some people claim to see. Killing Them Softly is certainly a message movie, but the message has a depth and subtlety that few are attributing to it. Dominik’s analysis of the American character is masterful. I think it is safe to now call him our generation’s Terrence Malick, a poet in celluloid more than a filmmaker proper.
This is Andrew Dominik’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a pastoral elegy that instead of mourning the loss of Lincoln, as that Whitman poem does, mourns the loss of America itself, mourning the destruction of an ideal that perhaps never was, and showing us a cannibalistic monster eating itself. And that, my dear friends, like it or not, is the state of our union.
Killing Them Softly is a film written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. It stars Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, and Ben Mendelsohn. Jackie Cogan is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from Killing Them Softly, Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Company