Stupid is as stupid does – no truer words are spoken, particularly when it comes to the film Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini (although I using “starring” loosely in this case). Disjointed and at times dull storytelling, keep me from ever becoming wholly engaged in director Andrew Dominik’s telling of George V. Higgins’s 1974 crime novel, Cogan’s Trade. I wonder why Brad Pitt, who can pick far better roles, and his co-stars choose to perform in a film that demonstrates such a morally corrupt and socially disgusting aspect of society. Idiotic, contemptible people do unethical, illegal and violent things and we are expected to see the parallel within our world and accept the brutality and unscrupulousness as normal.
While Pitt’s name rules the advertising for Killing Them Softly, the film focuses more on two idiots, deadbeat good Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and nasty, dog-napper, Russell (Ben Mendlesohn), who, desperate for money, take a job from an crooked and equally dimwitted drycleaner Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), robbing a high stakes poker game. Because the game, run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liota) has been hit before (by Markie himself as it turns out), the odds are Markie will take the blame again, even though folks forgave him the first time. Once the robbery takes place, Jackie Cogan (Pitt) comes in to clean up the mess, and kill everyone involved. Because Cogan prefers “killing them softly,” he seeks to hire another hit man to kill the mark he knows, Markie (after goons rough him up), thus enters (Mickey) James Gandolfini, a socially warped, alcoholic facing jail time to do the job and a man who really has no reason, whatsoever for appearing in the story. No one character in the film has any sense of integrity, decency or higher purpose, and sound-tracking each violent crime are car radios and TV sets following the heated 2008 campaign for a new America of hope and change. Duh, American government and its economics are like business (as Jackie unnecessarily preaches in the finale) not that different than any business, perhaps even more like the mob business than we like to admit.
As I write this, I feel a bit like a hypocrite, since I laughed long and hard at and did enjoy Seven Psychopaths, an equally immoral film, and truthfully, I have no ethical justification for liking the one and not the other. Simply put, director Andrew Dominik’s fails to offer a cohesive or compelling story or any inkling of a redeeming character in his tale and making matters worse in my mind, it often bored me. I adore Richard Jenkins who co-stars with Pitt as a man named Driver, who hires Jackie and they do add clear dimension to their unsavory characters with typical ease. To be fair, the entire cast, badly or well, acts the heck out of their parts, but Doninik’s adaptation of Higgin’s novel (of which I am unfamiliar) lacks key connecting threads. Even with cool, slow-mo photography, Dominik’s characters are so despicable and their crimes so graphic and violent (oh, and wholly predictable) I felt dirty and sad for society as I watched.
Few characters survive the bloody onslaught of criminality in the rightly R-rated Killing Them Softly, save Pitt’s Cogan and Driver – most of the others getting his just desserts. The final scene makes me wonder if one or both of them will soon meet his end. Perhaps fault in the film over all lies in the fact that, while it is stylistically well done, it tries far too hard to be about something – thus the political bantering infused throughout – and ends up being about absolutely nothing more than a bunch of indecent, trashy, useless people, whose moral compasses simply do not exist. I cannot offer more than a C- minus for this film, which some will find generous given my disdain for its characters, but unlike them, Killing Them Softly isn’t 100% bad.