This isn’t a country — this is America, and America is a business.” Jackie Cogan confidently says these words in a run-down bar in the heart of a post-Katrina New Orleans as a TV in the background shows Barack Obama delivering a campaign speech during the 2008 presidential race.
Taking place amid the Lehman Brothers meltdown, “Killing Them Softly,” written and directed by Andrew Dominik, attempts to be more than just another movie about an underworld faction by being a reflection of our country’s top-down mentality in which immorality is a business strategy. Wholeheartedly dedicated to ruthless one-liners, the film is successful in asserting its opinion but ultimately falls short of presenting it in a persuasive and honest fashion.
Adapted from the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, “Killing Them Softly” follows professional hit-man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who is hired to inquire about a heist that occurred during a mob-sponsored high-stakes poker match that put the economy and reputation of the local underground network in jeopardy. The film features supporting roles by Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Sam Shepard.
The partnership between director Dominik and Pitt dates back to the 2007 film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The collaboration previously worked in their favor, providing a surreal take on the classic gunslinger.
Unfortunately, this time around the pair seems to be in a continual effort to find a tone. Whether its Quentin Tarantino-esque dialogue, slow suspenseful scenes of violence or ceaseless attempts at political references through out-of-context snippets of presidential speeches on TV screens, the film’s style and pace seems to bounce around from scene to scene.
“There’s no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who’s hooking,” says James Gandolfini’s character in a drunken state. Though offensively funny quotes like these can often provide a comedic element and increase a film’s sense of realism, it often takes a special hand to execute them with a sense of authenticity. Unlike other films that present raunchy scenarios in a way that is embedded into its structure and narrative, this film simply executes them in an effort to practice cinematic flare, as seen in an unnecessarily long scene where a junkie takes heroin.
Initially, the political references seem insightful, making you feel observant as you notice the impending billboard of Obama and McCain perfectly situated in a desolate setting. These meditated motifs eventually turn overbearing and a bit grandiose. The puppeteer, or the political machine, if you will, is represented by Richard Jenkins, a frail lawyer. The scenes between Jenkins and Pitt are unimpressive, seemingly upheld only by Pitt’s performance.
There’s no clear juncture where the overbearing hand of the “man” is felt; quite frankly, one wonders why Cogan does not simply kill these inexperienced old men and take power for himself by force — something he’s adeptly qualified for.
The film is as much about Cogan’s fetish-like infatuation with killing his victims from a distance during moments of complete unawareness as it is about any political message. The film is best looked at as a character study. Dominik is clearly better suited to make films in which the character drives the plot — not the other way around.
With a duration of 97 minutes, “Killing Them Softly” never takes the time to marinate in its ideals, providing a heavy hand of righteousness with the unprioritized fluidity of your average action movie.