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Category:    Home > Reviews > Crime > Drama > Killing Them Softly (2012/Weinstein/Anchor Bay Blu-ray)

Killing Them Softly (2012/Weinstein/Anchor Bay Blu-ray)

Picture: B+ Sound: B+ Extras: C Film: B-

There's a certain shooting-fish-in-a-barrel quality (no pun intended) to Killing Them Softly, director Andrew Dominik's adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 book, Cogan's Trade. The film centers on a mob hitman, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), sent in to clean up the mess left in the wake of a card game heist. That is, find the guys who pulled it off and kill them, but not before taking care of Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the guy who runs the game. Markie, not the brightest bulb in the pack, orchestrated a similar robbery of his own game once before, bragged about it, and was let off with a warning. But not this time. Mid-level operators, naturally, cannot abide two hits on the same card game.

It's all rather low-stakes in the global sense, but potentially catastrophic for the people involved. And as such, it's perfect for an efficient, stylish crime film, which is what Dominik delivers. Murders and beatings are presented in lush, captivating slow motion, capturing the flesh-tearing realities of bullets meeting flesh, heads meeting windshields, and cool raindrops splashing hot shell casings. Other movies, like Three Kings and Dredd, have done these sorts of scenes better, but there's a balletic quality to Killing Them Softly's violence that is singular and perversely beautiful. It's a sensibility Dominik also brought to his previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the great achievements of the previous decade.

Unlike Jesse James, which has a runtime of over three hours, Killing Them Softly is a lean 97 minutes. Yet Dominik doesn't allow that to get in his actors' way. This is a superbly cast film, from Pitt and Liotta (who makes the most out of what could have been a caricature) to Richard Jenkins as Pitt's moneyman and James Gandolfini playing a small but memorable role as a hitman on the skids. And they all have opportunities to seize scenes, whether that's Jenkins' middle-management well-ordered fustiness or Gandolfini's sad-sack yet wrenching and melancholic monologues. Even Sam Shepard, who shows up for literally 90 seconds as a guy who kicks a door down, leaves an impression.

Had Dominik allowed the film to progress under its own, considerable power, Killing Them Softly would have been a standout neo-noir. But he couldn't let it go at that and injects all sorts of portents of national apocalypse into a film ostensibly confined to a narrow sliver of American experience. He moves the setting of the story from early-'70s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans on the eye of the Great Recession. Throughout the film, characters have TVs and radios tuned to news reports about the collapse of Bear Stearns and all those banks being too big to fail and the Bush Administration's bailout plan. Because simply setting the film in 2008 and allowing the audience to make the connection between Wall Street's illegal gambling ring collapsing under threat of unscrupulous thieves and the card game heist pulled off by three disrespectful low lifes would be entirely too much to ask.

Dominik might think he's clever in setting Higgins' story in the not-too-distant past, but his determination to view the country's failings with all the perfect vision hindsight can muster is naive and patronizing. Killing Them Softly opens with a scene of one of the card game thieves walking and crying in slow-motion desperation set to snippets of Barack Obama's election night speech about the American Dream and one America. (Because we're not one America! And you can't make it if you try!) But worse is the end of the film ends, which presents one of the most ham-fisted speeches in modern movie history. Pitt, his job done, meets Jenkins at a bar while an Obama victory party is raging outside. There's a discrepancy in Pitt's payment, Obama's speech is playing on TV, and Pitt uses the opportunity to call everyone out — Jenkins, the mob, Obama, America, us: “I'm living in America,” Pitt says, “and in America you're on your own. America's not a country, it's just a business. Now fucking pay me.” And just in case any of that is too subtle, the film's tagline is: “In America, you're on your own.”

The only appropriate response is sheesh. If you go back and watch Peter Yates' 1973 film The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the only other adaptation of Higgins' work, it's clear that that this investigation of the rotten core of America is a part of these novels' DNA. The blight and corrosion - urban, moral, societal - on display in Eddie Coyle's Boston says everything about America in the Vietnam Era. It's gray, drab, and one bad turn away from utter collapse. As are the criminals, led by Robert Mitchum's title character, whose despairing resignation says so much about the place of the lower- and middle-classes in American society. Namely, they barely have one. All that separates their freedom, hopeless as it might be, from utter ruin is a dropped dime. If another hopeless case thinks he can improve his lot by selling you out, then game over.

This sensibility is very much on display in Killing Them Softly, too. Every local criminal we meet is a down-on-his-luck desperate beast, and their world is pretty terrible. But it's so couched in hand-holding and empty sloganeering that its effect is rendered moot. Had Dominik taken a more nuanced approach to the material and characters, the film would have resonated in a big way. Instead, what we get is a self-satisfied harangue. Sure, America feels like a business and politics is bankrupt and everything else this film says is right. But what does it matter when the delivery device for that message is the cinematic equivalent of an overheated Facebook post?

The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray release of Killing Them Softly is about what the film deserves.

The movie looks great. Cinematographer Greig Fraser told American Cinematographer magazine that Killing Them Softly was the first film shot on Kodak's new 500T 5230 film stock, which gave the film a “creamy quality.” The film looked incredible in theaters and only looks better on the disc: Night scenes are natural and inky but not muddy, while the earth-toned exteriors are full of contrast and texture. On the audio side, the DTS-HD Master 5.1 lossless mix is excellent. The multiple elements at play in action scenes - car tires, gun shots, breaking glass, and so on - are captured in fine detail, giving those moments an immersive quality. And in quieter moments, the soundtrack excels: Conversations have a natural quality, while more intimate violence (like when Cogan fires a heavy rifle) rattles your bones.

Where the disc falls short is in the extras content. All we get is a short, five-minute making-of featurette (which only serves to beat the dead horse of America-as-business even more) and a handful of deleted scenes that are really just extensions of scenes in the movies and were rightly excised. A little background on Higgins would have been nice, or perhaps a feature on updating Cogan's Trade for Killing Them Softly. Like the movie itself, its home video presentation is a missed opportunity.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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