Review: Killing Them Softly, a Cinematic Motörhead Song

Stimulus Whackage

Take it from this reviewer, there’s no finer date movie this season than Killing Them Softly. You and your special lady can hold each other close as Brad Pitt opens Italian guys’ skulls with a shotgun! Interlace fingers as you thrill to bloated Ray Liotta getting his teeth kicked in by a fat rapper! Heck, bring grandma and the kids! They’ll love James Gandolfini talking about cutting up hookers! And the best part is, it’s family entertainment that’s not just fun, it comes with an important message. Namely, “Everything sucks and people are assholes the end.”

If that sounds like a negative critique, it’s not, I loved this movie. Killing Them Softly is like that angry song you loved when you were 15, or that angry poem you wrote when you were 15. It’s a crime story-as-political-allegory that’s about as nuanced as a middle finger and as subtle as a pistol whipping, but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in panache, consistency, and consistently graphic skull trauma. The main point director Andrew Dominik is making, that politics is just as messy and amoral for foul-mouthed, shit-smelling murderers as it is for candidates wearing American flag pins, isn’t a particularly unique or insightful one, but then neither is “Eat the Rich.” Tight, fast, brutal, and gleefully immature, like my lovemaking, it’s sort of a cinematic Motörhead song, not especially smart, but there’s a certain poetry to getting punched in the face. Art in the same way that a brick through the window has a beauty that transcends the thrower’s justification.

Based on the 1974, George V. Higgins crime novel Cogan’s Trade, about a robbery at a mob-protected card game. Dominik’s adaptation uses the 2008 financial meltdown as a backdrop for, and parallel to, the collapse of the local criminal economy following the card game hit. Games are shut down, because everyone’s afraid of getting robbed. Brad Pitt plays Cogan, the hitman hired to restore the public’s confidence, take down the robbers and put things right again, which he does mostly through murdering everyone and smoking a billion cigarettes. Hence my headline, “Stimulus Whackage.” Clever, right? I thought so.

The two robbers are played by Scoot McNairy, who looks as much like a bizarro world Skeet Ulrich as his name makes him sound, and Ben Mendelsohn, a vulgar, greasy, sweaty Australian who looks like he smells terrible – his convict nationality perhaps a nod to Dominik’s own. One of the beauties of Killing Them Softly is that the dialog is smart even when the characters are dumber than dogshit (especially when). Call it the reverse Sorkin. Carnage, David Mamet, et. al, regularly soak up plaudits for the clickety-clack tete-a-tetes between obvious stand-ins for English majors, but smart characters don’t automatically add up to smart dialogue. True artistry is building witty repartee between obvious dipshits like Dominik does. Also, it’s much less obnoxious. Elmore Leonard was infamous for writing twisty tales of the underworld where the cops were always idiots. But Leonard always wrote at least one character who seemed to know everything. Killing Them Softly is like Elmore Leonard by way of Werner Herzog, aggressively nihilistic and darkly comic, where everyone’s a shady moron, not just the cops. The only one who isn’t is Cogan, and Cogan is only smart insomuch as he recognizes how dumb, biased, and easily manipulated everyone else is.