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.

Brad Pitt manages to make it through the film without eating the entire time like he usually does, and the cast, from Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini on down to Mendelsweat, Bliotta, McNairy and Slaine (aka Gloansy McGloan from The Town), are all varying shades of fantastic. The book was set in Boston, the movie shot in Louisiana but looks like Detroit, but wherever it’s set (Anyslum, USA) it’s an über-bleak portrait of the scum-covered nutsack of society, and the best part is that it never blinks, painting every morsel of civilization’s smegma and dickcheese in loving technicolor. When Mendolsohn describes the town’s hookers, who are more attractive than you’d think but still not that attractive, he says “Well, you wouldn’t want to rape ’em, but..”

I mean talk about an endorsement!

Gandolfini, noisy-nostriled as ever, playing a drunk, whore-obsessed hitman, has the honor of embodying one of the most repugnant characters ever depicted on screen, or at least one right up there with James Gandolfini as a snuff-film director in 8 MM (he must just have one of those faces that screams “I mercilessly abuse women”). Killing Them Softly offers him extended, terrifying monologues that are so skin-crawlingly uncomfortable that they’re almost funny. The closest thing I can compare it to is the time I had an Eastern Bloc cab driver who spontaneously offered up an anecdote about beating up a ladyboy. Every word is more disturbing than the last and you’re stuck listening to all of it. At one point Gandolfini says “none of this sh*t means anything anyway,” which I think was meant as an overt message.

I won’t spoil it, but the movie ends with an all-encompassing line that sums up every aspect of the movie perfectly, in the way that “war is a drug” summed up The Hurt Locker. There’s not much room for nuance, but the fact that it’s so stripped down and spare and brutal is what makes it so much fun. And finally, a movie that ends right when it’s supposed to. The only way to ruin Killing Them Softly is to start talking about it like it’s some lofty political allegory (and I guarantee a great horde of middlebrow, fake-smart critics will do exactly this, just watch). It’s not. It’s really not that lofty (even if Andrew Dominik thinks it is, and he might). It’s reactionary. And that’s fine, just don’t confuse a brick for a manifesto.