'Killing Them Softly' (2012) Movie Review

Killing Them Softly movie review
Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly
Photo: The Weinstein Co.
NOTE: This review first appeared on this site on May 22, 2012 after I saw it at the Cannes Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits theaters this weekend.

When the title for Andrew Dominik's Cogan's Trade was changed to Killing Them Softly there was a collective groan from the masses that were hotly anticipating its release. It seemed like a move from a "cool" and mysterious title to something more generic and audience friendly. It's not. It's right on the nose. A perfect title for an excellent film that wasn't anything like what I expected.

Killing Them Softly
Grade: A

Killing Them Softly"Killing Them Softly" is a The Weinstein Co. release, directed by Andrew Dominik and is rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.

The cast includes Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard, Bella Heathcote, James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola.

Adapted from George V. Higgins's novel, this is a gangster film with guns, bloodshed, a heist and consequences, but it also serves as a metaphor for the whole of America -- from the top down. A commentary that isn't at all subtle, and not in a bad way. Ironically enough, the violent nature of this film, with its equal moments of beauty and savagery actually make for a perfect comparison.

Set in 2008, amidst the financial crisis and the Presidential election, Killing Them Softly begins with a pair of hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) holding up a high stakes, mob-protected poker game under the presumption they can get away free. The reason being, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the guy overseeing the game, actually robbed his own game years earlier, later outted himself, but enough time had passed and it was laughed off and he was forgiven. However, if it happened a second time, the assumption is everyone would suspect he was behind it.

Well, it happened, and while no one necessarily believes Markie would be stupid enough to hold up his own game for a second time, someone has to pay. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a mob enforcer asked in to clean up the situation.

With so much uncertainty, no one feels safe, who can be trusted? How can we get the money flowing again? Markie didn't do it, but to rebuild confidence the blame has to fall somewhere and fast, even if the true culprits are eventually sniffed out. As one character says, "I get it, the public angle and all."

This is only one of many economical and political comparisons made in a film chock full of them. To help him along the way, Jackie calls in a once-reliable peer in Mickey (James Gandolfini), but what arrives is nothing like the Mickey he knew two years ago. Downtrodden after being in and out of jail and struggling to keep his marriage alive, Mickey is a drunk, lazy man that has seemingly lost all will and motivation.

To be blunt, Mickey, to me, represents a swath of American society, whether they have been beaten down by the government, left to struggle due to the recession or have simply given up. Mickey is a guy that will do the job he's been asked, but only in due time and not to the quality he's turned out before.

As Gandolfini's large frame settles into a seat with a heavy sigh, accompanying grunt, a drink in his hand and his hired sex walking out the front door you realize just how ugly it is when people give in to creature comforts, give up on life and start feeling sorry for themselves.

Throughout the film, Barrack Obama and George Bush are heard through televisions and radios, one stumping to become the next President of the United States the other giving reasons as to why the 2008 bailout was necessary. Their words play in line with the film, elevating the content, creating a connection. Sometimes it begins to be a bit too much, but it's essential to the beginning and a slam dunk in the end.

From a filmmaking perspective there is hardly a misstep and Dominik and cinematographer Greig Fraser are absolute wizards when it comes to the film's visual style. Fraser also proves he may be the one man you want on your side if you're going to shoot a car crash scene as he one ups the turned over, smashing of metal he delivered in Let Me In.

Here we see an assassination presented 100% in slow motion. Broken glass flies at the screen, blood sprays and a three car pile up is just as innovative here as was the wreck in Let Me In. The whole scene is absolute magic, beginning with blurred brake lights on dark and rainy streets before the window rolls down and the first shot is fired using what almost looks like macro-photography. If an assassination can be described as beautiful, in this case there is no other word.

Dolly zooms, a fevered heroin high, shotgun blasts and the unflinching eye of the camera as one man is beaten nearly to death and left to soak on the street in the rain -- jaw, ribs and teeth broken. Killing Them Softly uses violence and art to paint a metaphor. Sometimes you have to bust a few heads to get things moving again, even if the heads on the chopping block aren't necessarily the heads that most deserve chopping. But when it comes to that aspect of the story, even the caliber of weapon and the deafening sounds of the shots fired imply more than just a "cool" factor.

I don't traditionally watch a movie and wonder why a shotgun, hand gun or machine gun or otherwise are used. Most of the time the shots all sound the same and they serve their purpose -- to dole out death. Yet, here, shots are fired in silence, others with loud booms and then others muted by comparison. The victims all carrying different weight and once put to an end they're either tagged and pushed away or forgotten entirely. In most cases I don't see meaning in this, here it's something to consider.

The performances are also right on target. I've said little about Scoot McNairy (Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) to this point, but both knock it out of the park from early scenes of well-written dialogue to their later individual panic and, in Mendelsohn's case, personal decay.

Ray Liotta takes his licks, Gandolfini is the sad sack I've already described, Richard Jenkins is Pitt's go-between and together those two tell most of the story up until Pitt hammers home the film's final line.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    Been waiting for this film for well over a year. Seeing it at 2:00 P.M. Can't wait!

  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Pretty excited to check this out! It's either this or Pi this weekend. Either way I think I'll end up relatively pleased. :)

  • http://shloggshorrorblog.blogspot.com/ Shloggs

    This is Dominik's third film. He made the outstanding Chopper in 2000. Pitt became obsessed with it which is why Bana was cast in Troy and Pitt is in all Dominik's joints now. Seeing this in 15 minutes! Look forward to reading your review after!

  • The Dude

    Best film of the year, easily.

  • http://shloggshorrorblog.blogspot.com/ Shloggs

    I loved it, but that doesn't surprise me. I love Pitt's insistence on seeking out and supporting such provocative and edgy projects.

    My further thoughts: http://shloggshorrorblog.blogspot.com/2012/11/killing-them-softly.html

  • Torryz

    Brad, good insight on the comparisons between the characters and the economy. This is an excellent film and one that people should see.

  • Newbourne

    I feel very ignorant because I saw this tonight, but I didn't really get the metaphor. I think I understood Mickey being an example for the common American who has been beaten by the recession, but what about everyone else? Who is Cogan supposed to be? How about Squirrel? Markie? The two idiots? Dillon? Jenkins' character? I really don't know. If someone could explain it to me, I'd really like to hear it.

    All in all, it was a great piece of filmmaking, with some nice shots and excellent editing. The scene where Scoot and Ben's characters get high is really good. Best "high" effects I've ever seen. And like Brad said, the car crash was also beautiful. Plus, I really enjoyed the story, but its a bummer that I kept wondering what it was supposed to represent and never really got it. Can anyone help with that?

    • http://shloggshorrorblog.blogspot.com/ Shloggs


      I feel it's less about the financial crisis than the election. The 2008 financial crisis served as the backdrop for the change of power from Dillon to Cogan. Pitt represented Obama in the manner he restored faith in the process again, yet ultimately changed nothing about the way things work. I wrote about it more on my blog in the post above. Here's the link again if interested:

      I think the two idiot thieves represented the American public, being pulled to and fro by promises of wealth and security, yet gaining nothing in the end, unceremoniously executed by the very person who swore to bail them out. Liotta was representative of any number of fall guys (or companies: Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff etc..) trotted out to the American people so we could point fingers and lay blame for what happened.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        The one thing I didn't understand was Gandolfini's character and his two scenes in the film. What was the purpose of that long monologue about his wife serving him with divorce papers? Was that suppose to be a metaphor for something? Because it felt kinda random and meaningless.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/MrPapageorgio/ MrPapageorgio

          "Because it felt kinda random and meaningless", that's how I felt about the entire movie. People don't go to theaters to be informed, they go to be entertained. If I wanted a history lesson I'd insta watch any number of documentaries on Netflix about humanities problems and dilemmas, and all would be a million times better than watching this movie.

          • The Dude

            I think Jenkins represents the indecisive political leader (Bush, Obama, whoever) that cannot relate to the people he is leading and who is willing to bail someone out even at the almost certain risk of it leading to the same problems happening again. He lies to himself that it will lead to any kind of long term benefit. Gandolfini represents the insecure, whiny American. Pitt represents the voice of reason, the guy who isn't consumed by the idealistic notions being vomitted in the flowery speeches of political leaders. The guy who isn't willing to lie to himself, unlike Jenkins and Gandolfini.

            • The Dude

              I don't think that's a definite interpretation (I like some others that I've seen), but it's what I picked up on as I was watching the movie.

  • Lauradet

    Worst movie ever!!!

    • The Dude

      Go watch Here Comes the Boom and give it an A Cinemascore. You don't know what "worst movie ever" fucking means.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/michael1989/ michael1989

    really funny and enjoyable film ,totally agree with this review