If you want to see good things happening to Ray Liotta, then this is not the film for you. However, if you want to see an offbeat dark comedy looking at American politics, economics and bureaucracy framed in the context of a mob killing, then Killing them Softly is time well spent.
It’s 2008 and in the weeks leading up to Obama’s election. There is a recession on, and it’s hitting everyone hard – including the mob. So, when Markie Trattman’s (Liotta) illegal poker game is held up for the second time, everyone assumes that once again, he is the one responsible. The family calls in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), hitman and cynic, to investigate, but more importantly, clean up.
People being beaten and murdered is usually not a good base to build a comedy off. Except in the case of Bones. Or Castle. Or Jawbreaker…
People being beaten and murdered is a surprisingly good base to build a comedy off, and writer and director Andrew Dominik has navigated this masterfully, updating George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade to fit in with a new economic crisis. The humour isn’t slapstick or crass, and there aren’t one liners delivered as a detective swoops sunglasses off his face. Instead the macabre and the violent slots in easily side to side with well delivered lines, appropriate pauses and the occasional explosion mishap. Also, wow does that man know how to use inherently hilarious dogs.
Similarly the political and economic statements aren’t aggressively shoved in your face. Cropping up over the course of the film are Obama’s speeches dating from the election process to his first address as president. The only time it becomes a little too overt, heavy handed and street-preachy are in the final scenes – but it fits in with the moment, so you can get over it, even if having things spelt out for you is a little patronising.
It would seem most of the film’s promotion has been based around Brad Pitt. Yes, it makes for a kick-ass poster, and he was excellent in his role, however I’d argue that it presents a skewed view of the film. Killing them Softly boasts an eclectic and well thought-out cast, including Richard Jenkins, the rapper ‘Slaine’, and mob film and television alumni Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and Vince Curatola the latter two of whom starred together in The Sopranos. While Jackie Cogan provides a unifying thread, the main story of the film is propped up with some brilliant performances and side-plots, including Gadolfini’s character’s aggressive drinking and womanising being counteracted by a shared love of his wife and half-hidden possessiveness over one particular prostitute.
Killing them Softly is hard for me to compare to anything else. From the opening scenes between the bumbling Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and the cretinous Russel (Ben Mendelsohn), I was taken from a laundromat to dog kidnapping to an armed holdup to squirming in my seat from a horrible yet somehow still horrifyingly humorous beating.
Forewarned is forearmed. This film isn’t called Killing them Softly because there is a romantic serenade in the middle (this in particular goes out to you, lady who at the end of the film shook her head and told her friend in a surprised tone “That was so violent!”). People are killed. Sometimes not softly. This is a film of conversations peppered with violence, humour and often some grim insights into our society. Who knows – maybe it’s telling our whole lives through its words.