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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 03:48 pm

Softly a metaphor for our times

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Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly.

More like The Sopranos in tone and feel than Pulp Fiction, what with its lack of self-aware irony, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly has more than a few axes to grind. Intent on throwing the last two administrations under the bus for their causing and mishandling of the 2008 economic collapse, the writer/director uses the world of the modern mob as a metaphor for ineffective, top-down organizations. It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think and while this device is inspired, I’d have preferred it if Dominik hadn’t beaten it like a dead horse.

The time is 2008, the setting is New Orleans, and the citizens of the United States have just been informed they’ve been screwed. President Bush is on television, trying to reassure the masses that our economy will rebound, while up-and-coming presidential candidate Barack Obama is touting the notion that by working together, we can all succeed. As inhabitants of the Big Easy, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) know better than to believe in the government’s empty rhetoric. These ex-cons live on the fringe of society and could care less how they turn a buck. After all, opportunity for them is as rare as a FEMA relief truck during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So they’re open to the notion of knocking off a mob-run card game as devised by a local businessman (Vincent Curatola), what with a potential haul of $50,000. Surprisingly, they actually pull the job off, much to the dismay of Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a middle-level lieutenant who’s living under the shadow of a former misdeed. Knowing that this act can’t go unpunished, the local mob bosses bring in hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to clean up this mess, sending a message to all concerned that thefts such as this will not be tolerated.

Nothing particularly original here but the subtext Dominik provides by moving the setting of the George Higgins’ 1973 novel Cogan’s Trade to 2008 New Orleans allows for a timely indictment on modern politics and business. When Cogan requests that another man be brought in on the job, he’s told that his buddy Mickey (James Gandolfini) will have to fly coach and not to expect the usual rate. Equally troubling is the fact that the hit man can’t get a definite answer from his superiors regarding how he should progress with the job. Indecision and a lack of decisive action stymies him at every turn until the job nearly grinds to a halt. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw connections between what Cogan and the 99% have been dealing with in relation to the governing bodies they’re stuck with. It’s quite clever; I just wish Dominik didn’t feel it necessary to constantly run TV and radio spots of our duplicitous politicians speechifying in the background. I got it the first couple of times and I think other viewers will as well.

Thankfully, Dominik is a solid filmmaker as he moves the tale along at a brisk pace and composes two of the best set pieces I’ve seen all year. The first is the initial heist, which is built upon and played out for maximum suspense. Credit McNairy and Mendelsohn for conveying a palpable sense of nervousness, making the scene an intimate exercise in mounting fear. The other is a slow-motion killing that features pebbles of shattered glass, splattering raindrops and blossoming clouds of blood to create a beautifully composed crescendo of violence that would have filled Sam Peckinpah with envy.

In the end, the news that things are tough all over is delivered to Cogan in a very personal way. Needless to say, he’s less than pleased and disgustedly notes that, “We’re all just on our own.” Truer words were never spoken. It just takes some longer to realize it than others.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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