Killing Them Softly (2012)
9/10 Full Measures
Call me crazy, but it’s right up my alley.
Killing Them Softly is about some two-bit hoodlums who decide to knock off an illegal card game. Not a good idea to begin with, the kind of idea that would ordinarily put you in a body bag. But the thing about this particular card game is that, if all goes according to plan, the blame’ll get pinned on someone else and these guys’ll get away scot-free. With that all settled, they pull it off gorgeously, and just as predicted, their scapegoat takes the heat. But the fact remains that some bad guys got robbed, and now things ain’t exactly clockwork in the world of underground poker. So the bad guys send in one of their own to take care of the scapegoat, figure out what went down, and finally get things running again. Having been around the block and being damn good at his job, their guy gets down to business to start setting things right.
First things first, let’s address that Verdict. Word has it that I’m in the minority with this one, and the last thing I need is someone reaming me out for wasting their time and cash. I know the struggle, and I swear I have my reasons. Nonetheless, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind here, especially if you’ve already seen it. Because as much as I liked it, it’s easy to see why so many didn’t.
Judging by the trailer, the poster, and the oh-so-subtle title change, I’m gonna guess that this wasn’t the movie that folks had in mind. Going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing the expectation was 97 minutes of Brad Pitt killing people (softly, of course) with that handy dandy shotgun of his. I’m also guessing these are the same folks who were mighty disappointed when they realized The American was just George Clooney building a gun for two hours. And that’s a completely understandable expectation given the way this movie’s been pitched. Hell, if I hadn’t known any better I would have been in the same boat, and probably just as pissed, too.
See, the reality of the situation is that Killing Them Softly is anything but the movie it’s being sold as. And as result, it’s become a victim of its own publicity. At its core, Killing Them Softly a talking heads movie with some violence on the side (all of which is shown in the trailer, all of which is over in a flash). Granted, that ain’t the easiest movie to sell, but selling instead as a rootin’ tootin’ killin’ spree was just a foolproof formula for disappointment.
But I think that’s the difference between me and a lot of the folks who went into this: Killing Them Softly is exactly what I expected.
A couple years back, I had the pleasure of being introduced to a movie called The Friends of Eddie Coyle. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a lot like Killing Them Softly. It’s a talking heads movie with some violence on the side where shady dudes do shady stuff in the back alleys and dive bars of Boston. When people get offed, it’s business as usual, and when the action gets going, it’s over before you know it. For chrissakes, it was my introduction to Robert Mitchum, and believe it or not, it was one of the coolest movies I’d ever seen. Still is, actually. The reason I mention all this is because it’s adapted from a novel by a guy named George V. Higgins. As much as I can accredit the cast and crew for everything I love about Eddie Coyle, it’s undeniable that Higgins is the reason its so goddamn special.
As it just so happens, Killing Them Softly is based on Higgin’s third novel, Cogan’s Trade (a far less misleading title). So, realizing the rarity of a Higgins adaptation, I started doing my homework. Crossed Cogan’s Trade off my reading list, and being semi-unfamiliar with writer/director Andrew Dominik, went and bumped The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the top my Netflix queue. Now, this is usually the part where I talk about how awesome the book was and what a tall order the movie had to fill, but for once, I’m toning it down. Not saying that it was a bad book, just takes some getting used to is all.
The best thing about Higgins is that the dude can write dialogue. His authentic tone of voice and knack for writing the way people talk is exactly what makes his stories so compelling. However, that’s just about all the dude writes. I kid you not, 95% of a Higgins novel is set inside quotation marks where characters go on chronic tangents, briefly mention something relevant to the plot, then go right back to rambling about godknowswhat until you’ve hit the back cover. It’s a lot like Pulp Fiction actually…if Jules and Vincent were the only characters…and all they talked about were royales with cheese…and there weren’t any Acts of God for them to deal with, just bullets in bodies galore. Probably not doing this movie any favors with that comparison, but then again, Pulp Fiction just wouldn’t be Pulp Fiction without “royale with cheese.”
As much as I love Higgins’ dialogue, it can be a chore to get through in print. But for some reason, it translates beautifully to film. Guess it’s one thing to read a conversation and another to actually hear it. Sure made it a lot funnier.
And from one scene to the next, the cast does a fantastic job of acting natural, talking like people, and creating these totally believable, totally unique bottom-dwellers in turn. The only one who seems out of place is Brad Pitt, if only because he’s just too damn pretty to be amongst rogues like these. Not his best performance, not his worst either, but the mullet only goes so far in convincing us he belongs here. But all in all, they bring the goods, and I just loved listening to ’em talk. Sure, they can be vulgar as sin, and James Gandolfini is way too long-winded for his own good, but it’s been a long time I’ve seen dialogue get written or delivered like this.
Still, solid as they may be, Andrew Dominik’s the reason this movie works like it’s supposed to.
It’s clear that he’s seen Eddie Coyle, it’s clear that he’s read Cogan’s Trade, and it’s clear that he’s a fan of both. I mean, there are a lot of ways that this story could have been told, ways that could have been far more popular with the viewing public. But rather than compromise, he plays to Higgins’ strengths. He doesn’t sugarcoat the violence, he keeps the story straightforward, and doesn’t overcomplicated things by taking the focus away from the characters. The only liberties he does take includes moving the setting out of Boston, getting a little too stylish for his own good, and fostering this notion of two Americas that’s completely exclusive to his script. Hard to explain that last bit without seeing it play out for yourself, but while it felt a bid odd initially, it ultimately makes for a pretty provoking juxtaposition between the country we pledge to and the country we live in.
Because of Dominik, not only does this movie look exactly the way it should (and at times better than it should), but it’s a movie that would make Higgins proud. And as a fan of Higgins, what more could you ask for?
At any rate, Killing Them Softly ain’t for everyone, and I quickly came to terms with the fact that defending that Verdict would be an uphill battle. And that’s fine, as there are a slew of reasons why some won’t like this, not even in the slightest. It’s not a happy story, these aren’t happy people, and by the time it’s all over, you might just wonder why you bothered. But for everything that’s so grim and daunting about it, the truth is that no one’s made a movie like this since 1973. Can’t speak for anyone else on the matter, but that’s just unacceptable.
Folks, Killing Them Softly is just my kind of movie, much like The Friends of Eddie Coyle is my kind of movie. It’s cool without trying, it’s refreshingly uncompromising, and it’s flat-out genuine whether you like it or not. And it helps to know that going in, and it helps to have that expection, because at the end of the day, expectations are what’ll make or break this. Not an easy recommendation, but if you’re at all interested, watch Eddie Coyle and go from there. Much easier recommendation.