‘Killing Them Softly’ Review: Down On The Killing Floor

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December 3, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

**Minor-ish Spoilers follow for Killing Them Softly.

There’s a moment in Andrew Dominik’s latest film, Killing Them Softly, where Brad Pitt, as Jackie Cogan, is sitting next to Richard Jenkins in a clean, brand new car. Cogan sits there, half smiling, in a leather jacket and sunglasses. And then, as movie criminals do, he lights a cigarette. Jenkins stops him disappointedly: “not in the car…”

It’s a moment with its clichés, true. But the context redefines them. Killing Them Softly, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the film that spiritually inspired this one, is a movie about men out of time. About characters out of their proper film. The most fanfare seems to be from the film’s portrayal of contemporary capitalism, but it’s about more that. This is a movie about becoming lost in the mire of the modern.

Jackie Cogan wanders through a post-Katrina New Orleans underworld, with its recession-conscious gangsters, thieves hoping desperately to get jobs, and a committee running all of the sleaze, one that feels uneasy about actually having to kill anybody. And so enters Cogan with Johnny Cash playing in the background, into a rainy New Orleans, driving a muscle car in his leather jacket.  He is the experienced and disgruntled killer. The man with a code, disillusioned with America and the youngsters he sees around him.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, released in 1973, was based on a book by George V. Higgins, the same author whose book Cogan’s Trade inspired Killing Them SoftlyEddie Coyle is the embodiment of a 70s crime film. For one reason or another, I’m forced to eliminate other notable options for that title: The Godfather doesn’t take place in the 70s, French Connection pushes too many boundaries with its cinema verite, documentary style camera work, The Seven-Ups has a half hour long car chase, which again, is perhaps too unique. But Eddie Coyle is all blue-collar. The cynical lead played by an aging Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle as a supporting character, colorful muscle cars, and a chase or two sprinkled in. And it all centers around a high stakes bank robbery scene.[1] It’s unique in how utterly perfect it captures the crime films of the era. Yet, in spite of this, Robert Mitchum just doesn’t belong.

It’s entirely the purpose of the film. Mitchum is the 1940s, 1950s film noir man. The hard-edged, hard-drinking bruiser, who has seen his code become all but eradicated by the mutton chopped and mustachioed 1970s thief with his lime green GTO.  He’s a man of respect and paying one’s debts. And when he smiles, it’s only half way, and it’s because you don’t have a goddamn clue, kid.

Brad Pitt is precisely the same in Killing Them Softly. Though instead of the 50s hard man transplanted into the 1970s, Pitt plays the 70s slicked back enforcer stuck in 2008.[2] He’s quick-witted and intimidating, walking conversational circles around the low-level thug, Frankie. And then comes that half-smile, because kid, you just don’t understand.

Yet Cogan is set apart from Coyle, and every other notable film gangster I can think of other than Bob Hoskins’s Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday: the killer who doesn’t have the stomach for it. Cogan prefers to “kill them softly,” to kill them from a distance, so he doesn’t have to deal with the emotions and the pleading. The film, as this is Cogan’s film, shares his view of death. Which is to say, the displacement of the main character in time is further reflected by the displacement of the film itself within the context of other films. And now, to explain!

Every single death hurts, every beating, every murder; they all feel like murder. Which doesn’t tend happen anymore in crime movies.[3] In film, especially crime films, we’ve moved along a timeline begun (arguably) by the running and gunning mass bloodshed of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and continued through Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, in which death is used to entertain, as each viewer becomes disconnected from the gravity of events on screen. We are aware of our watching a film, and thus we feel the impact of the violence less. In Dominik’s film, every punch thrown is personal. Like our main character, lost in an age in which he doesn’t belong, the film itself functions similarly, standing out as a throwback to the crime films of the 60s and earlier, in which violence was jarring. Watch (or rewatch) the ending of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s far from a picnic.

If it has not yet been surmised, this is a strange crime film, and one that you’re unlikely to forget. It’s a movie in which its killers talk for far longer than they kill, its only heist-ish sequence occurs in the first fifteen minutes, and politics hover over all.  It’s a film where every death hurts, because killing, after all, can be such an emotional experience. It’s a movie that would prefer to just kill them softly.

They don’t make them like this anymore. Maybe they never really did.


[1] And its a methodical, tense bank robbery scene, among the best ever set to acetate.

[2] The film takes place during the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

[3] In Bruges sort of played around with these emotions, but the comedy and shocking violence were juxtaposed so jarringly that it became hard to watch. In the “oh god, I’m trapped in the Back To the Future ride at Universal Studios and I’m getting nauseous” way.

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One thought on “‘Killing Them Softly’ Review: Down On The Killing Floor

  1. […] Dir. Peter Yates): Yates strikes again. The embodiment of the 1970s American crime film. See this for more […]

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