Featuring a collection of largely incompetent hoods struggling in an America that itself is struggling with the financial meltdown in 2008, Killing Them Softly is a crime thriller based on George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade. It’s original and well acted, with Brad Pitt in good form as the central hitman, but it can be a bit blunt with its political message.
During the economic crisis and presidential election of 2008, two small-time crooks rob a high-stakes mob-protected card game. Enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is hired to investigate and punish those who were responsible.
Killing tells its tale in an efficient, fast moving manner; which is a wise move to keep thrillers thrilling. At less than 100 minutes, there’s no time for unnecessary scenes or subplots to dilute it, and appropriately it ends suddenly on an economics related note. It’s a film that’s all about money, the card game heist is what sets things in motion, and the underworld inhabitants are portrayed as resembling those at the top in how they conduct themselves. The 2008 presidential campaign is continually referred to, candidates are shown promising change and a “united” states, whilst what’s viewed is the opposite and mostly about business. Although ostensibly in control, Cogan isn’t in charge. He takes instructions from a middleman, Richard Jenkins’ Driver, who’ll debate the price and get clearance from those in authority; who themselves are never seen. Killing constantly examines these themes, though it’s really, really unsubtle in how it does so, which after a while leads to it seeming quite clumsy.
Beyond the corporate angle, it displays the grimier side of crime as well. The gangsters shown aren’t romanticised, they’re generally sad (literally and figuratively), alone, feeble and idiotic. This is especially clear with James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta’s characters who not only seem pathetic, but are also hard to sympathise with. For all the criminals involved, crime clearly has a high cost. Pitt is great in the lead role, who’s unsurprisingly less pitiful than the rest, Cogan is cynical and assured; however like the rest he gets unsettled and is at his most aggravated when his payment is compromised.
An effective and unglamorous thriller, where the actors give universally good performances as the disturbed yet interesting characters; Killing Them Softly succeeds in holding your attention and in being different to your average gangster film. It skilfully manages to be tense, humorous and brutal, without appearing like it doesn’t know what it should be doing. However despite being an incredibly violent film, it bizarrely is all the political and economics stuff running through it that comes across as overly explicit, nevertheless this doesn’t stop it from being an original and thoroughly absorbing film.
- Jon Bartholomew