A crime gone wrong, leading to inevitable punishment of the persons involved; we’ve seen this film many times before, right? So why do it again? Coming at a snails pace off of his 2007 freshman effort, The Assasination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, director Andrew Dominik took the 1974 set novel Cogan’s Trade and adapted it for a modern take on crime, politics and the politics of crime. What Dominik does quite well, and what allows him to hold on to originality in a saturated genre market, is placing this film at a time when many in the United States thought change was right around the corner, and the rest deemed us doomed. No, not this last November, but rather the November of 2008 in the days leading to the election of Barack Obama. And the film opens with fragmented speech by our President, intersected with loud bursts of sound and breathtaking imagery that asks for attention, though as time goes by we respectively realize there was no need to ask.
In the office of Squirrel we meet Frankie, a criminal low on the totem-pole who needs to do a job that’ll pay out. He has an Aussie friend Russell that also needs “work”, but Squirrel isn’t one for trusting thugs he doesn’t know. Instead, he tells Frankie and Russell to hold up card game of local crime bosses with a payout of a couple hundred thousand dollars. It seems like an easy gig because the man who hosts these games, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), once drunkenly admitted to holding up his own game before and would be blamed if it was held up again. So Jackie and Russell rustle up some stockings and much-to0 sawed-off shotgun and rob the game dry. Enter Jackie Cogan.
Cogan, played by Brad Pitt, is called in by the higher-ups to come in and fix the situation – kill people. He knows Markie wasn’t responsible, but their business model relies on making the guys with the money happy, so Markie has to go. His death is one of the highlights of the film with a scene shot almost entirely in slow motion as Cogan’s car pulls up beside Markie’s and the bullets fly. This is by no means an example of “killing them softly” as Cogan so delicately puts it, but rather an example of brutally murdering someone, as is the case it seems, as Markie is only the first of many deaths. Morals aside, it is payment that matters to Jackie Cogan and we learn in the final scene of the film, on the eve of election night, you better pay him his money.
Of the performances, Pitt and James Gandolfini really shine. Gandolfini plays a hit man brought in for one kill, but there’s much more to his character as we come to find out and the scenes with he and Pitt are standouts. However, it is Andrew Dominik and cinematographer, Greig Fraser, that make Killing Them Softly so fantastic. Dominik clearly has an eye for where to put a camera – when and why – and enlists great people to help him achieve a truly beautiful aesthetic. Many frames in the film are so remarkable that I would gladly blow them up and hang them on my walls. He’s now made two of the more gorgeous examples of cinema to come out the last ten years and I only hope our eyeballs won’t have to wait another five years for another repeat experience – unless that’s what it takes.
There are definitely political tones throughout, but I won’t pretend to understand them fully. What I do take away from the film is that there is never an easy answer to solving our global, national, and personal problems. Everyone has to find their own balance, even criminals, if anything is to ever get done. At least that what I have for now, but what makes a film like this so great is that I’ll have a different view in ten days, ten months, and ten years. Now go to the movies.
– Kyle Owen