Caveat lector: here be spoilers.
Killing Them Softly is a crime film based on a crime screenplay based on a crime novel.
That’s a lot of crime.
This fact is reflected in the movie. Every single inch of this film is a crime. From the opening montage of Scoot McNairy’s lone walker meeting his friend on a street corner, a friend who comes walking about twelve dogs, to the final scene in the bar Killing Them Softly is about crime and criminals and the world they live in. Although the novel by George Higgins was set in the seventies, the screenwriters chose to place the characters in the tumultuous world of 2008, before, during, and right after the election in which Obama became president. I assume the sly implication here is that sure, change is good, but sometimes, things never change.
The Plot: Frankie, Russell, and Johnny Amato develop a plan to knock over a mob-run poker game, figuring to blame the crime on the man in charge (a wonderfully bloated and dead-eyed Ray Liotta) who was known to have pulled the same crime years before: knocking over his own card game.)
Naturally, it goes downhill for the three would-be criminal masterminds. Russell, an Australian lowlife junkie (well-played by Ben Mendelsohn) has taken a few days off from his day job: stealing purebred dogs and selling them in Florida. Frankie (Scoot McNairy’s Southie-Bronx-accented nice bad guy) vouches for Russell to the Squirrel, a dry-cleaner owning small-time crime boss. Despite reservations, the Squirrel hires Russell, who admits he’d only pulling jobs to save up money to buy an uncut ounce of heroine so that he can become a drug dealer. Frankie and Russell pull the job and get away successfully with the money. Russell continues to Florida to sell his dogs, Frankie spends some time hiding out, and the Squirrel goes about his business.
While in Florida, Russell brags to his partner Kenny Gill that he and Frankie just pulled a major score, and details the robbery. Kenny Gill, a bumbling oaf of a man, happens to work for the mysterious hitman known only as Dylan. Thus, word gets back to the bosses as to who actually robbed them.
The mob brings in a killing specialist, the shadowy Dylan. Even the professional tough guys are scared of Dylan. Dylan, however, sends his protege, Jackie Coogan. Coogan is played by a sleazed-up Brad Pitt who, as everyone knows, cannot possibly be made to look unphotogenic. Even in the brown leather coat, the greased-back pompadour, the really heft sideburns, the creepy mannerisms, and the constant cigarette hanging off his lip, Pitt is just pretty. He’s Brad Pitt. It isn’t his fault he looked almost exactly like his Ocean’s Eleven character Rusty Ryan. But Pitt establishes right away that he’s not a fool, nor does he suffer fools. Between his impatience at the mob bosses reticence to actually kill anyone (“What is this? A committee?” Coogan laments) and his no-nonsense approach to every aspect of his job, he is magnetizing. It’s impossible not to like him. He’s cool. The Businessman, Coogan’s contact and the only actual representative of the aforementioned bosses, deals with Coogan as thought they’re having a board meeting, and Coogan’s impatience is palpable.
After sending guys to beat the daylights out of Ray Liotta’s Markie Trattman to question him about the robbery (and kudos to Liotta. How many big-name actors who made their living playing toughguys would break down and cry after a couple punches to the mouth, and puke all over the shoes of the men sent to beat him a little? Brave performance.) Coogan tells the businessman he doesn’t believe that Trattman had anything to do with the robbery.
And then he tells the Businessman that Trattman needs to die anyway. “But you just said he wasn’t involved,” the Businessman says.
“Appearances,” is Coogan’s hard-hearted reply.
Cold. Coogan them recounts to the Businessman that he (the businessman) has never killed anyone, so he wouldn’t know, but there’s a peculiar form of intimacy when you kill someone face to face. They cry and plead and beg. They want their mothers. It’s not fun. It’s embarrassing, Coogan says diffidently. I prefer to kill them softly, from a distance.
The middle of the film is occupied by James Gandolfini in his last roll as Mickey. Because Squirrel knows Jackie, Coogan knows he won’t get anywhere near the Squirrel. He convinces the Businessman to hire a friend, Mickey, to come in and do it.
“Mickey’s too expensive,” the Businessman says.
“Not at the moment,” Coogan says.
“Can you get him for ten?”
“He’ll do it for fifteen?”
“Fifteen, asshole. I think in this economy a quick fifteen would sound pretty good to Mickey. We’ll sell him a party. Fly in, whack a guy, fly out. Quick fifteen,” Coogan says.
Summing up the straits of organized crime’s state of being with a simple phrase, the Businessman’s only response is, “Fly him coach.”
Coogan prefers to kill them softly, as he puts it. This is just how Liotta’s Trattman goes. Pitt rolls up on him at a stop sign and shoots him a number of times, and Trattman’s dead before he knows what happened.
Mickey, the bloated, aging hitman, is a comical character, and sad. He’s the perfect image of a made guy gotten old. He talks about the old days, he drinks like a fish, and he’s totally unreliable. He talks abotu his wife, and how, if he does more time, she’ll divorce him. He’s pathetic. Gandolfini plays the character perfectly.
Off-camera, after Jackie finally convinces him to get out of his hotel room, stop sleeping with hookers, and actually DO the job for which he was hired, Mickey instead gets picked up by the police for, of all things, a fight with his hooker.
A feared, expensive once-great hitman for the mob, cooling his heels after getting busted for fighting with a girl. Another brilliant peek at the real state of the glamorous life of crime.
Meanwhile, an oblivious, obviously high Russell staggers into the bus terminal across town, barely finds his locker, almost falls asleep against it, and pulls out his goldmine: a brick of pure heroine. Before he can get ten feet, the police close in around him. His sad face and slumped shoulders are the perfect response as he doesn’t even struggle. With his priors, it’s a mandatory life sentence.
Now Coogan has to kill the squirrel himself. Using his contacts, Coogan finds out that Frankie likes to frequent a neighborhood bar. The next day, Pitt sidles up to Frankie at a bar. He reveals who he is, and convinces Frankie it’s him or the Squirrel. And who would the Squirrel choose? His friends, Coogan says, want to see him come out all right. It was a one-time mistake, they know that. So help them out, and all is forgiven. Frankie, misgivings and all, agrees. He drives Coogan the next night to a parking lot outside the Squirrel’s apartment where Coogan guns down the Squirrel. He and Frankie escape into the night.
Coogan spends ten minutes schooling Frankie in his escape procedures. Take the car to an abandoned parking garage and wipe it down, take the bus back to his car, and then take a vacation. Frankie agrees. While he’s preparing to do just this, Coogan comes back.
“You’re not going to forget, right?”
“No, No. I got it. Wipe the car down, go get mine, and-”
Although Coogan prefers a soft kill, he’s not above the hard ones. Coogan fires a pistol into the car, blowing the side of Frankie’s head off. He empties the pistol into dead Frankie, wipes the car down, and leaves. He conned Frankie into helping him kill his friend the Squirrel so that he didn’t have to track down two separate guys and waste more time.
The next day, Coogan meets the Businessman in a bar. The Businessman gives him thirty thousand dollars for the three kills.
The final scene is masterful, full of tension and fear and uncertainty. It’s also a statement about the fundamental nature of the business these men are in. No favors. No freebies. No loyalty. No mercy.
“The price is fifteen.”
“Dylan charges ten. Recession prices. They told me to tell you that, too… You get what Dylan gets. No more.” The Businessman looks nervous as Coogan eyes him. “Talk to Dylan. Take it up with him,” the Businessman says uncertainly.
“Dylan’s dead,” Coogan replies. The Businessman looks very nervously at Coogan, who only says, “Dylan died this morning.”
“They’re going to be very sorry to hear that,” says the Businessman.
“Sure. Sure they are. it;s gonna cost them more,” Coogan says.
“You know this business is a business of relationships,” the Businessman says to Coogan.
“Yeah. And everyone loved Markie,” says Coogan.
“You’re a cynical bastard, you know that?” the Businessman says.
Barack Obama (on TV): …to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one…
The Businessman says, “You hear that line? Line’s for you.”
“Don’t make me laugh. One people. It’s a myth created by Thomas Jefferson,” Coogan says
“Oh, so now you’re going to have a go at Jefferson, huh?”
Coogan says in an ever-softening voice, “My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me!”
This film didn’t do well in theaters. It cost 15 million to make, and brought in only 14 million domestically, although the foreign market gave it another 20 million. It’s a film by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B. It’s solidly directed, well-acted, and has a sharp script.
It did poorly in America for a couple of reasons: it isn’t explody. There’s no naked women. There aren’t any car chases. There aren’t any flashy shots. There’s no snappy Tarantinoesque dialogue showing how clever the criminals are. It isn’t a movie that showcases crime in a positive light.
No wonder most Americans called it slow.
This movie takes its time. It knows where it’s going and it knows it will get there when it’s damned good and ready. It rolls over you like inevitability. Like the inevitability of age. Or getting slow. Or losing your touch. The inevitability that you’re just a cog, replaceable the moment you screw it up.
There’s very little extraneous fat to cull from this film. Yes, it takes its time. Yes, there’s a lot of silence between the characters. But every shot establishes something subtle and overt at the same time. The tone is gritty, realistic, and believable. The Southie accents seem to place them in the Northeast, but then again, Russell is Australian. Coogan is New York. The Businessman, as is his character, is bland. It could be Boston. It could as easily be Detroit, Chicago, or somewhere else. Or, it could be right in your backyard.
These are all street guys. Not hip hip street guys, just regular, working-class street guys. None of them are too bright. None of them are clever. But they’re tough. And they’re real.
From start to finish, this film impressed me with the lack of luster. Not lackluster, mind you, but a definite lack of luster.
The huge master crime? It netted Frankie and Russell about fifty grand. Coogan? Even when he gets paid, he only makes forty-five grand. Russell was struggling to save up seven thousand for the heroine to start his drug business. Frankie only wanted to have enough money to buy a decent car. Markie Trattman died in a ten year old sedan. The illegal poker game business didn’t pay very well. The stakes for all of them were high for the payoff, which was low. They weren’t well-dressed. They weren’t well-spoken. They weren’t heroes.
The glamorous life of the street criminal:
Markie Trattman: dead of an overdose of .45 caliber bullets on the street. The Squirrel: dead of a close-quarter shotgun blast to the head. Russell: life in prison. Mickey: waiting for bail in a county lockup while also waiting to find out if he’s going back to prison for skipping parole, and running guns. Frankie: close-up .38 to the temple. Even the feared Dylan dies in a hospital after having a heart attack.
The only two characters who make it out alive are Coogan and the Businessman, and one wonders, after Coogan’s thinly veiled threat at the end of the movie (Pay me!) whether he was smart enough to do it.
Coogan? Coogan is the winner. And yet, he’s not a kingpin. He’s a guy, doing a job. He’s just punching time, having to threaten to get paid, having to explain everything slowly and twice to the Businessman because not one of the ‘bosses’ are able to actually make a decision. He does live, but his attitude seems to be, “So what?”
This movie is as close to the forties and fifties crime movies as you’re going to get. No Bogart. No Cagney. But you get what made all those movies great in this one: tone, story, and a little bit of violence.
All in all, decent movie. I give it a four out of five.