The Economics of Crime ‘Killing Them Softly’ – Film Review

I watched this movie on the weekend and it’s rather stayed with me since then. It’s exhilarating meanness is quite deliberate, I think, and lends Andrew Dominik‘s latest exploration of criminality some integrity and traction.

Set in Boston, the story follows the characters involved in the ripping off of a mob-protected poker game. Driver (Richard Jenkins) is the cautious intermediary sent by the Mafia to look into things and restore order. He enlists the aid of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a cynical enforcer who has scant regard for the politicians fighting out the 2008 election that is the movie’s backdrop. Cogan tells Driver that the game’s proprietor, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) must necessarily be the first victim of the reprisals. Markie’s innocence or guilt is irrelevant. The punters must have confidence in the game and the mob’s ability to maintain security. There’s a recession and illegal gambling is also subject to the same financial crisis that shredded Wall Street in the autumn of 2008. Perception and market confidence is everything.

And so Dominik takes us into Cogan’s Dantesque world. We accompany the two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, whose everyday attitude to serious crime is eerily instructive, as they steal the gambling stakes in an unbearably tense scene that had me leaning anxiously forward, fearing the worst.
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We meet ‘Squirrel’ (Vincent Curatola) who plans the heist and identifies Markie as a ready-made fall guy. We encounter Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini), a played out contract killer, more concerned with excessive self-indulgence than helping Cogan. The mean streets of Boston are populated by the venal and the desperate.

What Dominik is showing us, through his fine script and direction, is similar to the analogy drawn by Coppola in The Godfather; that crime has a parallel dynamic to business; that its mores and rules are identical; that its outcomes are inextricably linked to the Share Price Index and the value of the greenback. As such, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a convincing companion piece to ‘Margin Call’ which I reviewed last year In Wise Blood.

As for the performances – I especially liked Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as the two young hoods. They bring a curious, quotidian flavour to their portrayals that sits well inside the director’s bleak vision of routine wretchedness. Everyone else is fine. Brad Pitt is becoming a dab hand at psychotics; Achilles, Jesse James and now Jackie Cogan. He fills out his character with some recognisable quirks. He doesn’t like to get up close and personal with his victims because he can’t handle their anguish. He prefers distance. He bitches about politicians, the lack of community and about being short-changed by Driver. He provides the movie’s telling epilogue – ‘America’s not a country….it’s a business.’

Author’s Note
New Zealander, Andrew Dominik has previously directed ‘Chopper‘ and ‘The Assassination of Jesse James….’. The movie reviewed here is based on George V Higgins’ 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade. It would seem that Dominik is well on his way to auteur status and I look forward to his next exposition on the state of the criminal union.

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