Killing Them Softly offers social commentary
Killing Them Softly opens with career criminal Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walking through a sea of trash amid audio of a pre-presidential Barack Obama speech, interspersed with title cards and accompanied by a low, droning tone. It seems that every time a character is in a car there is a political speech on the radio, and the televisions in bars or restaurants all show 2008 campaign speeches from Obama.
This political undercurrent turns out to be a major instance of foreshadowing, as the more message-driven aspects of the movie unfold. The economic crisis is the explanation for the use of political propaganda; the characters in the film are all motivated by money. The main theme of the film is choice: Make a good choice and you will be rewarded; make a bad choice and you pay the price. This theme is used as an analogy for how America works as a whole — everyone is trying to get ahead, rather than work together as a community.
The movie is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, so it’s easy to see why some of the subject matter feels better suited to a form other than cinema. The film is undoubtedly entertaining, but one might wonder why symbolism plays such a large part.
Brad Pitt appears in a role he must be comfortable with by now: the man with all the answers. He plays Jackie Cogan, a mafia hit man and a consultant to the more affluent mafia members. His colleague Driver (Richard Jenkins) is a representative for the richest members of the mafia, and he needs Cogan to get rid of Frankie and the rest of the men who perpetrated a crime against the mafia.
While each actor does well with his screen time, it is clear that Pitt monopolizes the movie. Ray Liotta’s character Markie Trattman, a mafia member who runs a gambling ring, could easily have had a larger role in the film.
James Gandolfini plays a similar small role as Mickey, a hit man whom Cogan contracts, but never delivers on the deal. Gandolfini’s character serves as a symbol for society at large: He would rather have sex and drink than do the work he was hired to do. This kind of symbolism, like the portrayal of drug use to represent the degradation of society, might have been richer in the novel. In the film, drug addiction seems like a tangent.
The R rating for this movie is definitely earned. Tremendous amounts of violence fill the screen, perhaps too much for particularly squeamish viewers. Most of the scenes containing violence are almost Tarantino-esque and are very well done. The film’s treatment of drug use is fleeting, but the repetitive nature of one scene, wherein Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) uses heroin, making him too distracted to face his problems, pulls the viewer away from the driving plot of the film. This type of technique might be better suited for a text piece, as the adaptation is limited by the visual format. In a novel, where extra emphasis can be placed on character, drug use would be a more prevalent theme.
A lot of dark humor comes through in the dialogue, an added touch that only makes the film better. The film poses the question, “Is America a community?” Cogan answers, “A community? Don’t make me laugh. America isn’t even a country; it’s a business. Now pay me.” This dark humor plays a special role at the end of the movie that may leave the viewer unsatisfied at first, but only because the credits come so suddenly.
If you’re a fan of the crime film genre, go see this movie. You might get hit over the head with symbolism, especially at the very end of the movie, but Killing Them Softly is still an entertaining movie with a great cast.