Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is an enforcer, and when the mob's rules get broken, Cogan is called in to take care of business. This time a high-stakes card game has been held up by an unknown gang of thugs. Calculating, ruthless, businesslike, and with a shrewd sense of other people's weaknesses, Cogan plies his trade, moving among a variety of hoods, hangers-on, and big-timers, tracking those responsible, and returning "law and order" to the lawless Boston underworld.
Killing Them Softly’s narrative opens in Anytown USA, in a windswept, paper-blown landscape, a thriving metropolis of American industry now overgrown with weeds. It’s late-2008 and the local economy is in the toilet having been severely curtailed by an 'inside job’ that seized upon the market’s ingrained weaknesses to make off with its proceeds. The surprise heist has the Powers That Be in a flap, under pressure to restore investor confidence and by extension, order, through the act of finding perpetrators and/or scapegoats, upon whom they can apportion blame.
Dominik holds true to his talent for crafting tough guys who are as fallible as they are gullible
Unless you’ve been in kindergarten or a coma, you’d be cognisant that this is more or less what went on in Everytown USA, circa. September 2008, as an outgoing President and an aspirational Chicago Senator vying for the position made stump speeches about bipartisan unity and bailouts in a bid to kick-start the economy (and sure enough, these rousing speeches pepper the soundtrack of Killing Them Softly). However, the aforementioned synopsis is the specific top-line narrative of a simultaneous GFC, or Gambling Financial Crisis"¦
When an armed robbery sparks a meltdown in the illegal poker economy, the snoozy regulators are compelled to find a culprit so as to placate skittish high rollers and lure then back to the tables. The nature of the catastrophe demands quick and decisive leadership, and a wannabe Commander in Chief takes on the job as a means to prove his mettle and secure career advancement. Again, in Killing Them Softly-speak, the cool head in this particular crisis belongs to Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt).
With Killing Them Softly, writer/director Andrew Dominik holds true to his talent for crafting tough guys who are as fallible as they are gullible, as they strive to realise their own mythologised rise through the criminal ranks. It’s a rogue’s gallery of naïve bottom-feeders (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNary), top dogs turned lame (James Gandolfini), jittery prodigal sons (Ray Liotta), and dour bean-counters (Richard Jenkins). They’re an endearingly miserable bunch that Cogan encounters when he blows into town to put things right, to the winking strains of Johnny Cash’s 'The Man Comes Around’. Embarrassed by the occupational hazards of grown men reduced to howling babies, Cogan prefers to dispense his personal brand of biblical justice 'softly", from a distance, where there’s less chance of things getting 'touchy feely".
Dominik adapted George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade by transplanting the '70s-set pulp paperback to the chaotic northern autumn of 2008, when a spate of homeowner defaults exposed widespread mortgage frauds in the US financial sector. He read the grisly novella as a portrait of an economic collapse, as an industry downturn takes its toll and causes even the highest paid wiseguys to take a pay cut and fly economy.
As with his past efforts, the calling card Chopper and the critically acclaimed-but-box-office-deficient The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik enables the conversation flow to set the pace, and with stylised 'action’, ruminates on the violent world these men inhabit.
In his most commercial effort to date, Dominik ensures his crafty metaphor is signposted and spotlit in audio cues throughout and in a final fiery soliloquy from his protagonist that makes plain the connection once more. Irritating as the throughline’s lack of subtlety may be, it’s still about the least worst thing you can say about a film that is unashamedly designed for the multiplex.