America Is a Business

30 Nov

What is it lately about lowlifes and their cute little dogs?

In Seven Psychopaths, Woody Harrelson’s shih tzu was a focal point of the plot.

And now, in Killing Them Softly, some of the film’s laughs come from a supposed tough guy who walks around with a puppy.

Of course, that’s just about the only sensitive side on display in this movie, which is one of the grittiest, grisliest, toughest pictures of the year.

You’ll be forgiven if you call it this year’s Drive, but thankfully, Killing Them Softly is a much better, much more enjoyable movie.

The film gets its title not from the classic Roberta Flack song but from the modus operandi of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a low-key enforcer, who explains that he prefers to take out his victims from a distance, so there’ll be no begging or pleading, and no crying for mercy.

Cogan likes to get in, do the job, and get out. Now that’s efficiency.

Cogan’s called in to help clean up a mess that ensues after a card game run by the mob is held up for the second time. The last time, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the guy who manages the game, was to blame. (He was so proud of his work that he bragged to his friends.)

This time, it was two not-so-intelligent hoodlums (including one with the aforementioned dog), who are less confident about their handiwork but can’t stop talking about it either. “I don’t know what it is with these guys,” Cogan says. “They can’t keep their mouths shut about anything.”

These two incidents are screwing with the local criminal economy. It’s Cogan’s job to restore order before the whole thing is in shambles.

Killing Them Softly is director Andrew Dominik’s first film since the excellent and woefully underseen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Like that film, which was less about Jesse James and more about the legend of Jesse James, Killing Them Softly is less about the plot than it is about the themes and the bravura filmmaking on display.

The film is set during the economic collapse of 2008, and multiple scenes take place while speeches by Barack Obama and George W. Bush are playing on the soundtrack. It’s a not terribly subtle way of bringing the national financial crisis down — way down — to a place where we can understand it.

“America’s not a country. It’s a business,” Cogan explains cynically. There’s a system that everyone buys into, and when people don’t follow the rules, the game breaks down and bad things happen — whether that’s on Wall Street or in the back alleys.

Markie learns that lesson well, first in a brutal, cringe-worthy scene where he gets roughed up by two gangsters, and then, in a beautifully photographed and orchestrated scene where Cogan shoots him through his car window.

And yet, it’s the dialogue that resonates as much as the violence does. Some of it is spoken by James Gandolfini, who shows up as a crony of Cogan’s who turns out to be a bit too unstable for the job. The role is brief, but it gives Gandolfini (who appeared with Pitt in The Mexican, one of my favorite underrated films) the chance to chew some scenery for a couple scenes, all while wearing cheesy tinted glasses.

And Pitt gets to deliver a great little history lesson at the end that ties the whole thing up in cold, bitter style and leaves you with no doubt about who is really in charge here.

See Killing Them Softly in a theater with a good sound system, so you can hear this dialogue and really appreciate the sound design — first in the film’s opening moments when an Obama speech is spliced with some feedback and static, then in the scene where Liotta gets beat up, and throughout to hear some of the great song choices (including Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”) in all their glory.

But really, just see Killing Them Softly, and revel in its testosterone and cynicism. I don’t expect it to be a big box office draw, but this sure is one cool movie.

I’m giving it a B+.

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