Irish-American Crime Movies: Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly: A city full of losers making Brad Pitt's job harder than it needs to be.

Killing Them Softly: A city full of losers making Brad Pitt’s job harder than it needs to be.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Written by: Andrew Dominik
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
Summary: Brad Pitt plays a hitman undermined by incompetence in this grim semi-sequel to “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

You’d never know it, but “Killing Them Softly” is a sequel to the great 1973 Robert Mitchum film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Or, more properly, it’s a sort-of sequel, which are my favorite kind. “Die Hard,” as an example, is a sort-of sequel to the 1968 Frank Sinatra film “The Detective,” in the sense that the novel “Die Hard” was based on was a sequel to the novel that “The Detective” was based on, and, in fact, the producers of “Die Hard” were contractually obligated to offer the 73-year-old Sinatra the lead role.

“Killing Them Softly” is likewise based on a book that’s a sequel to a book, both by George V. Higgins. The first was, of course, 1970’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which became the Mitchum film, and the second was 1974’s “Cogan’s Trade,” which became “Killing Them Softly.” There’s some visible crossover, too, if you look. The murderous ex-con Dillon, played by Peter Boyle in “Eddie Coyle,” makes a brief appearance, played here by Sam Shephard. Both films take place in Boston, although a little less so with “Killing” — it was lensed in New Orleans and makes no effort to hide the fact, although all the dialogue, and some of the accents, reference Beantown.

I like it when two stories casually exist in the same universe without making too much of a fuss about it.
And that’s about it, and that’s enough for me. I like it when two stories casually exist in the same universe without making too much of a fuss about it.The Green Hornet is supposed to be a grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger, as an example, but the two properties had different owners, and so “The Green Hornet” could only allude to the fact, which made it a sort-of fascinating secret.

‘Killing Them Softly” is a film without many fascinating secrets. Theoretically, it’s about a pair of low-level hoodlums who rob a mob-sponsored card game, played as a sort-of scuzzy-andscuzzier pair by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, and the mob enforcer who must find and murder them, played by Brad Pitt. But this is a film set in a world of near-competence, and so while the robbery goes off well (in a satisfyingly tense scene; everybody looks like they’re about to go for their guns at once), the secret gets spilled at once. Somebody tells somebody they shouldn’t, and so Pitt knows exactly who must die.

But it’s never that easy. Writer/director Andrew Dominik sets the film just at the moment of the Wall Street financial collapse, which plays constantly throughout the film on any television that happens to be nearby. It feels a bit gimmicky, like this is a film that can’t be bothered with subtext about little criminals dying for little crimes while big criminals are bailed out by the government, but I prefer to think of it is a parallel of inaction and incompetence. Pitt knows exactly what he must do, and it starts with killing the man who hosts the card games, played by a very nervous Ray Liotta. He held up one of his own games earlier, and , until he’s dead, the games aren’t going to start up again, even though he’s innocent of this one.

But Pitt doesn’t get to make his own decisions. There is some sort of semi-corporate syndicate that does, their orders relayed by an easily irritated driver played by Richard Jenkins. The people he represents are hesitant, cheap, and, as is always the case with management, a bit clueless about how things really work. And so what should be a simple job becomes unnecessarily protracted and cluttered.

Worse still, Pitt subcontracts pone of the murders to a New York killer, played by James Gandolfini, and when the man arrives, he’s a mess. He’s looking at prison time for a minor parole violation, he’s going to lose his job, and he’s burying it all in the bottom of a bottle of alcohol and in increasingly unhinged behavior toward bartenders and prostitutes. It’s a typically fine performance from Gandolfini, albeit a tremendously unpleasant one. His character is a wretched man, and he has given himself permission to behave accordingly. Pitt can’t get rid of him soon enough, but it’s just another holdup.

As with “Eddie Coyle,” the centerpiece of the film is a long, slow evening of driving a car that culminates in murder, an evening marked by unexpected joviality and sudden reversals. Pit plays his character with a bemused competence. He’s a man of action and very little patience, and is constantly surprised to discover that others don’t share that trait, and when he’s confronted by the inaction or bumbling of others, he screws up his face in irritation, and then, because there is little else he can do, laughs it off. But there’s no doubt that Pitt is going to do the job he has been sent to do, and the film is just a document of how unnecessarily hard it is for him to do it. And I’d like to think that this is the real reason for all the footage of Obama talking about the bailout — to remind us that there’s a hideous criminal ineptitude everywhere, and it’s always going to be a pain in the ass for the person who has to clean up afterward.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.