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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012

Killing Them Softly

The Business of Crime

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Brad Pitt reunites with Andrew Dominik, director of the elegiac western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, for a highly stylized, awfully brutal, sharply critical gangster picture, Killing Them Softly. The title refers to the squeamish qualm of professional enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt): he doesn’t like killing people he knows up close, preferring a sharpshooter’s rifle. That way, he doesn’t have to see their surprised look or endure their pleas for mercy.

Mercy is in short supply in the sordid milieu of Killing Them Softly. Set in the fall of 2008 as the economy collapsed and Obama gained momentum, the apparent contrast between national news and the business of big-city hoodlums is really a comparison. Bush is seen on TV, going on about the productivity of the American worker as Cogan goes about his work. And all that Obama hope and change spiel cuts between scenes of a criminal on desolation row, stumbling through garbage and debris in an ill humor that says: “I have no hope and nothing changes.” By implication, the American-global economy is a giant Ponzi scheme threatening to unravel, its moral basis little different from the illegal rackets seen up close in Killing Them Softly.

Cogan, cool in his leather jacket, aviator shades and muscle car, drives in half an hour into the film—after the lynchpin heist of a gambling den by small time crooks hoping to prey on bigger crooks. Cogan is linked to the higher realm of the official economy through an attorney (Richard Jenkins), who forbids him from smoking in his car while commissioning a series of hits on the suspected perpetrators of the gambling hold-up. The lawyer shrugs and says that his bosses run the operation like a corporation—just like the boys on Wall Street. The laconic Cogan snickers in reply.

Killing Them Softly
is dialogue and character driven, with the former serving to define the latter. The acting and scene construction is masterful. Although Cogan becomes the main character upon arrival, the story contains contending, well-developed personalities, especially the two dim-bulb foot soldiers who execute the gambling heist (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) and the dead-end, past-his-prime hitman played with trudging gait by James Gandolfini. The low-life world of smack and hookers and lazy dreams of easy money is vividly portrayed. Cogan is in, but not of, that subculture. He is too smart to fall into the slime and savvy enough to exploit corruption as if it were a natural resource and he was CEO.

Violence comes in bone crunching thuds. Blood splatters the camera lens. A carefully choreographed hit involves moving vehicles, bullets in slow motion (without resembling The Matrix), car windows shattering into silvery shards and the dead man’s vehicle slumping into an intersection, causing car crashes on all ends.

No points of light brighten the darkness, unless you count Cogan’s professional dislike of gratuitous violence as a moral polestar. At bottom, Killing Them Softly is a corrosively cynical commentary on American society. When an Obama speech is aired in a barroom, with talk of America as one nation, Cogan launches into a diatribe against high sounding Jeffersonian rhetoric. Thomas Jefferson was a wine snob who refused to pay British taxes and roused the rabble to die for him, says Cogan. He said all men are created equal but he didn’t believe it for one moment—what with his slaves and the children he sired with his favorite piece of property. “America is not a country—it’s a business,” Cogan declares. And in Killing Them Softly, no one rises to rebuke him.

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