Sunday, December 2, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, is based on a George V. Higgins novel called Cogan's Trade published in 1974. Dominik sets the film in the days leading up to the 2008 election, a time when the American economy seemed to have come undone and when the small-time hoods of Higgins' Boston find themselves in as much need of a bailout as any automotive company. The inciting incident is the robbery of a card game, a robbery that leaves a low-level player named Markie (Ray Liotta) in bad standing with his superiors. The robbers are on an even lower rung of the criminal infrastructure. Frankie (Scoot McNairy of Argo) and drug-addled Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) both hope to use the money from the job to launch new schemes; Johnny (Vincent Curatola), the man who hires them, needs an infusion of cash for an ailing dry cleaning business. No one in Killing Him Softly ever mentions TARP or failing banks (Obama and Bush are frequently heard in the background), but after the Mob sends in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) the point becomes clear. Frankie, Russell, and Johnny are parts of a machine; in Dominik and Higgins' world the gap between those with power and those who do the work is enough to fuel years of Occupy rallies.

George V. Higgins (who died in 1999) didn't write plots, he wrote conversations and digressions i which information was dispensed at oblique angles. The screenplay of Killing Them Softly reproduces Higgins' structure to great effect; there is very little action in the film but rather a series of dialogue scenes that ping with the resonance of long associations and half-forgotten bad choices. The scenes between Pitt's Cogan and a character known as The Driver (Richard Jenkins) are a study in the art of delivering exposition. The Driver is the representative of Cogan's superiors, a never-seen group of criminals who are just as mindful of budgets and just as bad at making decisions as any large corporation in bad times. Richard Jenkins infuses this role with great humanity; the Driver blanches at Cogan's talk of who needs to be whacked and how much a gunman from New York (James Gandolfini doing his impression of one of Tony Soprano's short-lived henchmen) might cost. Pitt is wonderful here as well, and his Cogan has great fun teasing The Driver's naivete and laying out the facts for his boss. Cogan is a man who has achieved a certain amount of respect by doing things right, and in a kicker of a final scene Pitt does of the best acting in his career as he explains the philosophy that has kept Cogan alive.

If Killing Them Softly loses its edge at any point it's in the way Dominik films violence. The violent acts in the film are transactional, that is to say investments in future plans or payment for services not rendered. One character receives a brutal beating, and later the shooting of the same character is drawn out in bloody slow-motion that looks like something from the drugged-out scenes in Dredd. Domink has a great eye but he's showing off here, the violence seems to mean more to him than it does to the characters themselves. Despite the hiccups Killing Them Softly is pungent and haunting effort with a surprising amount of relevance, and it stands as proof that the art of adaptation is just that.

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