Brad Pitt reunites again with writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to adapt George V. Higgins’s novel, Cogan’s Trade for the big screen. It’s another successful outcome, retitled here as Killing Them Softly – referring to hits by strangers on strangers in the underworld. As Cogan, Pitt embodies his standard cool and articulate criminal stance once more, a character type that snugly fits him like a glove, trying to negotiate the present situation with an alluring presence of menace. He also has a highly impressive and engrossing ensemble cast to work opposite in James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola and Scoot McNairy.
In hard economic times, even the criminal world is struggling to make decent money. Johnny Amato (Curatola) tasks petty criminal Frankie (McNairy) to find a partner to do over a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta), protected by the Mob. Frankie turns to erratic, ‘entrepreneurial’ addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help out, and surprisingly, the job goes well. With Trattman already on thin ice with the bosses for another raid, the finger is automatically pointed at him for causing the local criminal economy to collapse. Jackie Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer, is hired by the mysterious Driver (Jenkins) to track down who is to blame and restore order, calling on old-school hit men like Mickey (Gandolfini) to help out.
Killing Them Softly is a totally enthralling verbal conquest from the word go, complete with some very fine acting from all involved. There is a calculated calmness and tension to every heavily dialogued scene; every word is absorbed, even though the sense of urgency and immediate threat looms, and at times, brilliantly intercepted by historical newsreel moments of financial gloom and political lobbying. This gives the whole piece a unique feel to the run-of-the-mill crime drama, as each character plays the money game as best as they can within a timely framework.
Mob-genre stalwarts Gandolfini and Liotta take the infamous images that have personified their individual careers to play pitiful shadows of their former glory days in parts that feel like ‘end of era’ roles. Gandolfini is magnificent as incompetent, hard-drinking and womanising Mickey in all his scenes opposite charismatic Pitt as Cogan. There is a surprising sense of empathy felt for the old dog, even though his character is despicable in every way. Liotta as Trattman is the fall guy, trying to earn a dishonest living but choosing the wrong profession for a quiet life. Again, he is a miserable husk of a gangster in this, which casts a commiserative gloom over their parts of the tale, as well as reflecting the miserable demise of dead old wood in the criminal fraternity.
As the ‘newcomers’ cutting their teeth, McNairy as Frankie and Mendelsohn as Russell display a wonderful double act in this, certainly making their mark, with Mendelsohn stealing the scene each time. They portray the naivety and ‘innocence’ of the bottom-rung of the industry, living on borrowed time but grabbing as much profit from the moment in the hope that they survive and prosper. As with each character, Cogan is the judge and jury as to their fate, and it’s intoxicating viewing watching the experienced player toy with his inexperienced prey, especially opposite Frankie. Again, the waiting game is a very big part of Dominik’s film, favouring word power over action until completely necessary.
This cerebral crime offering portrays victims not winners, as in other films in the genre. The only winner is capitalism, which gleefully presides over the lot. Dominik’s film with its strong cast is very topical indeed, almost depressing, as it is highly entertaining to watch. Pitt is at his very best too. Although each scene’s intention is set up by Cogan as the adjudicator, the character opposite him is given the space to hang himself in a fascinating way that by the time any violence rears its ugly head, the main damage is done. For fans of the crime-gangster genre, it’s a must-see in acting prowess.