Just as all good war movies must speak to war’s inherent evil and pointlessness, the best crime thrillers deal with the way criminals glamorize themselves in an attempt to turn madness and delusion into positive character traits. There’s a pattern to the way these men create and re-create their personas, setting themselves up as kingpins only to suffer and then try to rebuild. Think of the way Goodfellas shows Henry Hill cocky and confident, swimming in suits and free booze, only to let himself become a schnook to dodge a drug charge. As a filmmaker, Andrew Dominik has done a wonderful job highlighting the absurd lengths some men will go to just to prove their fame or power to others, even if they wind up paying with their lives. Chopper had Mark Read, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had its titular gunmen, and now Killing Me Softly follows a rangy crew of killers and thieves as they lie to themselves about what they’re doing and how it will end. It’s not just about thinking you can get away with it, but that you deserve to. Killing Them Softly is a fantastic film for many reasons, but chief among them is Dominik’s ability to get inside the heads and hearts of these small-time fools and watch them slowly tear their own lives apart. There are no winners here, just survivors.
Dominik’s also working with fantastic source material, which has been an integral part of his movies. Chopper was based on Read’s actual books about his exploits, while Assassination of Jesse James was based on Ron Hansen’s acclaimed novel. Dominik adapted those works for the screen, and he does a similarly splendid job with George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, the 1974 novel that became Killing Them Softly. Higgins debuted with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was adapted brilliantly in 1973 with Robert Mitchum in the title role, and Cogan’s Trade has the same dirty, broken-down lifestyle of crooks doing their best to make it through a depression. Although Dominik adds his own take to the Killing Them Softly, he hews as close as possible to the gorgeous street rhythms of Higgins’s dialogue, letting the greasy argot of hardened criminals push the story along. These men talk of almost nothing but murders and drug deals, but everything’s done with a purposeful obliqueness that comes from fast-talking men who know how to communicate without indicting themselves. Every dirty second of it feels utterly real and threatening thanks to Dominik’s refusal to dumb down the talk or shortcut the story.
On top of that, though, he makes the film his own by transferring the action from its original 1970s setting and placing it in the fall of 2008, when the U.S. was just beginning to understand the magnitude of the coming recession. Throughout the film, TV screens and radios warn of coming difficulties and a need for the country to stay united and hang tough. The news falls on deaf ears where the film’s character are concerned, though. These are men living on their own terms, outside the law and the concerns of the stock market. They kill and hustle constantly, no matter who’s behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Dominik highlights their separateness by keeping them relegated to clothes and cars just like the ones Higgins likely envisioned when he wrote the book: big 1970s gas guzzlers, tinted eyeglasses in wire frames, leather jackets, questionable sideburns. Hope and change are a mockery to these men. They live in a world that will never change, never evolve, never improve. They’re outside of time, standing stock still as the world marches past. They joke about “recession prices” hitting their wallets when it’s time to take a job, but it’s a dry punch line. This is just the business they’ve chosen.
The story itself is remarkably simple: three men hatch a plan to knock over a high-stakes poker game populated by criminals, and when they get away with it, the bosses call in a hitman to track them down. The brain trust behind the robbery consists of Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), a small-timer named Frankie (Scoot McNairy, having a pretty great year between this and Argo), and a sleazy junkie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). They manage to take down a room of high rollers playing in a game organized by Marky Trattman (Ray Liotta), at which point the bosses — never seen on screen, and never referred to as anything other than “they” — send in Jackie (Brad Pitt) to settle the score. It’s a lean, propulsive story, but Dominik makes the most of every frame in the film’s relatively spare 91 minutes. He remains committed to a certain bombastic style, but it works precisely because he matches it with substance. For instance, one scene has Russell shooting up and drifting into a blurry high just as Frankie’s trying to ply him for info about another gig. It would’ve been easy (and less time-consuming) for Dominik to keep us outside with Frankie, watching as he shouted at Russell and tried to slap him back into consciousness. Yet Dominik queasily pushes in and out of Russell’s mind, using filters and ebbing sound design to capture the experience of actually giving into the drug. He doesn’t just show us Russell’s situation; he actually puts us in it. It’s a subtle but strong way to force us into feeling exactly what this repugnant thug is feeling, which is something we wouldn’t choose to do on our own. We’re not meant to be implicated in the action, but we are meant to feel it.
And this is definitely a movie you’re meant to feel. The violence is rare but graphic, and every slug or kick comes through with unsettling clarity. Yet the various henchmen and killers don’t take any joy in what they do. For them, it’s just a job. Trattman takes a beating from two men who are more exasperated at the sheer hassle of dealing with him than anything else, and when Jackie gets to town, he’s anything but a gunslinger. His murders are cold, boring necessities for the life he’s decided to lead. The reason he’s lived so long and done so well is he’s been able to resist the temptation to think he’s destined for greatness. That hubris is what gets his compatriots in trouble, and Dominik never shies away from the brutal results of thinking you’re untouchable.
Pitt’s a perfect fit for Jackie, in other words. He’s got the control and presence required to shrink back into the shadows, to keep his mouth shut and get the job done. So much of Pitt’s allure these days is in the anticipation of what his character might say or do; I can’t think of a memorable line he uttered as Jesse James or Billy Beane, but I remember not being able to take my eyes off them. Pitt’s career even feels a little like an embodiment of Jackie’s ethos — keep your head down, do the work, don’t get too comfortable, never settle. He’s great here precisely because he’s matured to the point where he can play a soft-spoken, businesslike hitman without feeling like he’s forcing anything. His longest bit of sustained dialogue only comes in the film’s final scene, and even then it’s in service of a simple creed: Pay me.
The rest of the cast is perfect, though the standout is probably James Gandolfini as Mickey, an alcoholic hitman Jackie summons to town to help with the job. Gandolfini’s a perfect fit for the darkly comic, perverted dialogue — at times the film almost feels like the Coen brothers filtered through Scorsese — and he’s able to shift so beautifully from pal-around guy to depressed loner to someone barely keeping his rage in check that you feel like you’re watching a magician at work. He’s a supporting character who shows up late in the game, yet it’s his performance, and Mickey’s increasingly troubled relationship with Jackie, that comes to define the film. Mickey’s a mess, but it’s not because he drinks, and it’s not because he doesn’t want to work: it’s because he’s too emotional. He rages and pouts, two things he’s absolutely not supposed to do. He’s blinded by his own belief in his abilities and in the persona he’s created, which means he’s useless. Dominik’s made a grim, captivating crime story that’s at once fresh, classically styled, and above all dedicated to one of the oldest ideas in the book: If you want something done right, do it yourself. That’s business.