"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Killing Them Softly

I really thought it was a sure thing. Andrew Dominik, director of CHOPPER and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD: THE MOTION PICTURE, doing another crime movie, this time based on the book Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. I haven’t read it but I loved a different one by him, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a book about small time hoods that’s made up mostly of long conversations, sometimes going for long stretches without any description, but never getting boring. And also made into a good movie.

After a long wait and a title change and everything we finally got Dominik’s movie, and it’s got all the great things I assumed would be in it: really good performances, a strong sense of tone, a willingness to take its fuckin time, lots of visually inventive scenes, lots of talking (in a good way), some brutality. It’s a solid, arty crime movie that I can almost love, but it also does this thing that makes me kinda hate it.

The story starts with Frankie (Scoot McNairy from ARGO) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn from ANIMAL KINGDOM – actually playing Australian, too), two twitchy low lifes in some seemingly abandoned area of urban blight, trying to take a job from a small fry crime boss (Vincent Curatola) working out of a laundromat. Russell is a really thorough portrait of a Guy We Never Should’ve Had On the Job. It looks cold out but he’s always sweaty, his hair ready for a Lee Daniels movie, he looks dirty, he’s an asshole to everybody, he talks about disgusting things like fucking animals, he’s a junkie, he makes stupid mistakes, he spaces out in a heroin haze while his partner is trying to get important information out of him, he works with a bunch of dogs so other characters mention him smelling like animals or like shit. And you look at him and you can believe it. He’s a scumbag character who stands out among quite a selection of great scumbag characters.

The two nitwits somehow end up getting the job, which is to stick up a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta – what, you didn’t think Ray Liotta would be in this?). There’s a whole back story to it that is supposed to make this a sure thing because supposedly everybody will think Markie set it up. But of course not everything goes as planned – or I guess it mostly does, but it’s just a bad plan. So before long Frankie and Russell are being circled by the people in charge of payback on this one: Richard Jenkins as a sort of bureaucrat usually seen discussing the situation in his car, and Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan (I don’t think they say his name, though), the elite hitman who offers his expertise and his killing people.

See? ‘Cause, like, America or whatever. Take that America!

Cogan is a more obvious character than Russell. He’s the suave out of town know-it-all super tough guy, chews on toothpicks and spends alot of time on his sideburns and pompadour, like all the sudden Pitt’s back in JOHNNY SUEDE or COOL WORLD again. But he gets more interesting when he makes a mistake and calls in his old friend Mickey (James Gandolfini – what, you also didn’t think James Gandolfini would be in this?) to do one of the killings. Turns out Mickey has lost it and is about as bad as Russell. He never stops drinking, moons over lost loves and is a total dick to innocent waiters and prostitutes. And doesn’t tip.

So the movie takes a nice detour about Jackie hanging out with Mickey, listening to his rambling. And on his face you can see him going from amused to sad to positive that this job has gone to shit. Gandolfini is a great obnoxious, sad character, and Pitt does his best acting just reacting to him.

Hey, this is a good character for Liotta, too. He’s not a cop that seems nice but is actually dirty. Instead he’s a crook that’s dirty but is actually kinda nice. Even though he’s a weasel I felt bad for him when they were punching him until he puked blood.

Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle it’s not as much about the plot as the characters, and that comes out more in conversation than in action. They sit in cars, bars, living rooms and places and they tell stories and shit. And that could be boring, but it’s not. Higgins knows how to write ’em and Dominik knows how to put together an excellent cast and direct ’em. And they don’t talk about pop culture at all so for me it never felt post-Tarantino, despite his movies being the gold standard for cinematic talkative criminals, and despite how much RESERVOIR DOGS plays like a Higgins novel.

(The only time I thought it might be Tarantino-inspired was in some of the musical choices, using oddball old songs that sound pretty cool but seem weird for the characters to be listening to.)

It looks good too, and there is one scene in particular that is the most beautiful slow motion shooting I know of. It’s bullets going through glass and it’s so slow and detailed that it reminded me of Trinity falling and shooting in the beginning of THE MATRIX RELOADED, but it looks completely real, not computery. It shows the mechanical movements of the gun in a way I’ve never seen in a movie. I’m gonna have to remember the name of this cinematographer, Greig Fraser. He’s an Australian who’s been around for a while but did some particularly nice lookin ones in the last couple years: LET ME IN and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. And I’m betting his work on ZERO DARK THIRTY will be worth mentioning too.

I like how the camera goes over the stick up kids’ shoulders as they enter the card game, putting you in their place and making you feel nervous even though you don’t really care about these shitbags. Alot of well directed sequences here. Dominik’s got skills.

So what’s the problem? The fatal flaw I mentioned earlier is that it has delusions of Being About Something Bigger. Dominik, an Australian, decided that Higgins’s 1974 novel should actually be about the 2008 U.S. financial crisis and presidential election. And not just “about” like,”Hey, if you think about it this is all a parable about the financial crisis.” “Oh yeah, I didn’t really think about that, but you’re right, that is an interesting way to look at it.” No, not like that. Like, it opens with the sound of an Obama speech playing over a long shot of one of McNairy walking past an American flag in an impoverished ghost town to meet with Mendelsohn under a giant billboard advertising McCain and Obama (which probly works better for metaphoric purposes than for political advertising, in my opinion, why would they have a split billboard?). Then, throughout the movie you hear Bush speeches about the crisis. You hear more Obama speeches. You hear talk radio discussions and news reports. You see C-SPAN. You see CNN. If they go to a bar, the news is on. If they ride in a car, the news is on. Even in the big heist scene, a stick up at a card game, the fucking mafia guys aren’t talking and are listening to the political coverage on a TV. And it ends on the characters talking about Obama’s acceptance speech.

To have such heavy-handed political themes (and both “heavy-handed” and “themes” are being Mother Teresa-level charitable) seems kind of condescending to me, a signal that it wouldn’t be worth it to just do a really fuckin good crime movie, it has to be about fuckin politics to be worthy of Dominik’s time. “Don’t worry people, this is not one of those lowbrow crime movies, this is something more, it’s C-SPAN also,” is the implication. In a way it reminds me of how Godard took a solid crime story in Richard Stark’s The Jugger, but instead of respecting its story and characters just slopped some of its basic elements into movie-ish shape as an excuse to jerk off about American iconography and shit. Of course, this isn’t as bad because I can tell by the dialogue that it’s more faithful to the book and because it does for the most of its running time work on the level of a legit crime movie.

But as Thomas Jefferson once said, it’s fucking distracting. (Or I can’t remember, that might’ve been Christian Bale.) I’m trying to pay attention to this dialogue that sometimes involves keeping track of a number of different names and of who knows who and who has figured out what, but also I’m hearing fucking Bush in the background. I don’t want to hear Bush, but I have to. Alot. There oughta be a warning. Anyway, I also gotta try to decode what that’s supposed to mean.

Sometimes it seems like Dominik is trying to draw specific parallels between events in the story and the news bites. For example, in a scene where Richard Jenkins’s car radio is talking about the bailout being a necessary evil that must be done to restore confidence and save the economy, Brad Pitt is talking about having to kill Markie even though he’s innocent because people don’t think he’s innocent so that will restore confidence so they can have their card games again.

So it seems pretty clear that it’s supposed to be a 1-to-1 comparison here, right? The card games are the economy, and shooting Markie is the bailout, so Brad Pitt is… either Obama or Bush, or Geitner maybe, or Congress? Somewhere I read somebody asking if Ray Liotta was Saddam, which really threw me off because I don’t know how the Iraq war would figure into this thing, but it actually makes more sense than any of the analogies I could come up with.

I don’t know, but let’s figure out what this “killing them softly” business is. It’s a line that Pitt says that was considered important enough to replace the original COGAN’S TRADE title they were gonna go with. Cogan says he doesn’t like to kill people to their face because they cry and beg and it’s “messy,” he doesn’t like emotions, he prefers to “kill them softly” from a distance (which seems to always mean surprising them and shooting them through a car window).

So who is Obama or Bush or Congress or America or whoever killing softly? I’m starting to think that in this part Cogan must represent the cruelty of the big banks, crushing people’s dreams and taking away their homes but they would never walk up and look them in the eye and tell them “oh yeah, I got you to put your money into this and it was a bad idea and now your life savings are gone, better luck next time fella,” they just crush their bones and shit on their souls using complex financial trickery that oughta be illegal and then let the cops be the ones to kick them out of their homes. Killing them softly. So he’s that I guess, he’s not the bailout or whatever. But also the bailout.

That I have no clue what the hell the symbolism is supposed to be would be perfectly fine if it was a normal movie that was not spending a good quarter of its running time waving a sign in front of my face that says “THIS MEANS SOMETHING! IT’S ABOUT AMERICA! WAKE UP AND OPEN YOUR EYES YOU FUCKING SHEEP!” Maybe if you would turn the fuckin news off for a minute I wouldn’t get distracted trying to figure that out and then it would seem like an interesting thing to figure out later instead of a huge failure of storytelling.

This article from Indiewire has a good Cannes press conference quote from Dominik: “As I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation. It just seemed to have something that you couldn’t ignore.” But I figure if it was so unignorable maybe it didn’t have to be pointed out so many times. The front-to-back assault just seems like some dumb asshole pointing out the obvious and wanting us to give him a sticker for it. There’s gotta be a way to make the same point subtly and then maybe it would seem like a neat bonus instead of idiotic pretentiousness. Like, maybe ditch the speeches at the beginning and end and most of the middle, but leave the news playing in one (1) scene. Then it might even seem kinda deep.

One thing that’s weird about this world where all hoods spend all of their time watching and listening to the news: none of them even once mentions anything about politics until the very last scene. These are guys who talk and talk and talk and talk, and also are very, very keen to keep up to date with politics and current events, and yet they never, ever talk about it. Until that scene.

The final scene takes place on election night, with Obama’s acceptance speech playing on the TV in a bar. (And nobody’s really paying attention to it, which makes me think Dominik was not in the U.S. on that night.) Pitt looks at the screen and starts predicting what Obama is gonna say about the country being united, making fun of it and saying it’s bullshit. And he makes this statement that I won’t quote so as not to ruin its impact if you haven’t seen it, but it’s basically denying the possibility of America as an idea and saying it’s just about money, and then it smash cuts to the credits like “Ah ha, I FUCKIN BLEW YOU AWAY WITH THAT ONE, AMERICA. Signed, Andrew Dominik.”

Yeah, thanks for the insights, pal. It really took the objective view of an outsider to pick up on something like that. It’s one of those endings that feels so sure of itself, entirely convinced it just laid out all the groundwork for a powerful argument and then put the last puzzle piece in place right at the exact perfect moment and holy shit we didn’t see it coming and we’re sitting there with goosebumps. But actually what happened was more like we were trying to watch a pretty great crime movie but some asshole kept preaching shit at us that we already heard a million times before and we kept shushing him but the guy has some kind of Aspergers or something and he’s just not gonna be quiet so we’re gonna have to sit and listen to it and try not to let it ruin our enjoyment.

And you know what, on second thought I’d like to throw a with-all-due-respect type of “fuck you” at that very last scene. The more I think about it as I’m writing about it it kinda pisses me off. Pitt’s obviously playing a bad person, but also we’re supposed to see his cynical view of America as being true or somewhat true or wise, right? But the thing is, cynicism is not as unique as really fuckin cynical people always believe it is. Actually, everybody from me to your grandma to Obama thinks America is about money. When he made that speech he knew he was talking to a sea of people who have at least felt that way at some point. His speech wasn’t a denial of reality, it was a call to our better selves, saying that we can and should work together and we can make this place better. He was encouraging those of us who do feel the way Mr. Cogan does to not just accept it, to strive for something better and try to believe in something and attempt to work toward it. And that’s deeper and more productive than your movie.

The worst part is that if it was this good of a crime movie but also worked as a political statement, that would be just about my favorite type of movie, like a THEY LIVE. But this one bluntly tells you it’s about politics before it even tells you it’s a crime movie, then it distracts from at least half a dozen major scenes by pointing it out more, then it leaves you on that note at the end. It shows you what it symbolizes before it shows you the story. If you’re ever gonna make a movie like this I want you to take your hands and turn them into fists, and look at them. Are they made of human meat, or are they made of ham?

Just saying “they’re a bunch of crooks” isn’t new information and doesn’t do us any good, and then you gotta make fun of the idea of trying to fix it.  What kind of an asshole has to shit on hope? Why don’t you do another one with lots of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, to show how it’s all a bunch of bullshit ’cause then he got killed and people are still racist. That would be deep, man. Fuck you.

Loved CHOPPER though. And at least you were striving. I’ll watch the next one for sure. Just maybe cool it a little bit there buddy. Thanks pal.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 at 1:58 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

53 Responses to “Killing Them Softly”

  1. I saw this a few days ago, and have to agree on a lot of points. Especially about the politics. But it felt disjointed in other places too. Gandolfini’s character was at first interesting, but the longer he rambled on the more I fidgeted around in my seat. It felt labored in other parts as well, but that was what annoyed me the most. And I think James is a wonderful actor, but it felt a little like a Tony Soprano retread which I hope doesn’t happen again for him

    But it had some highlights. I thought the card game holdup was particularly effective, even with W. talking in the background. The film would have been vastly improved (IMO) if that aspect of the film was just limited to that scene. I also really liked the heroin scene. Never done it but I know how hard it is to talk to people when they’re impaired. The use of the Velvet Underground song was nice, too.

    This is the real cinematic disappointment of 2012 so many people are claiming DARK KNIGHT RISES and PROMETHEUS are. That kind of hype can doom a film from the start, especially with what it’s trying to hold it’s standards up to. If it’s even a little bit not the movie people were expecting, it’s just a complete failure. It almost makes a real failure of this magnitude even more hard, because Andrew was not feeling that kind of business pressure to make a solid follow-up to JESSE JAMES.

  2. Huh. Well, that’s a bummer. I always welcome a low-key crime thriller with lots of salty dialogue and sudden shotgunnings, but delusions of grandeur tend to throw the whole thing off.

  3. They should not have filmed in New Orleans and tried to pretend it was Boston. THAT was bullshit. Another hint that Andrew Dominik is pretty much totally clueless about contemporary American society.

  4. My first take on it was that it was like a counterpoint to LINCOLN. LINCOLN was what Republicans used to be, and KILLING THEM SOFTLY is what they are now. But after your analysis, I now agree that it’s really an overall indictment of American culture across the board – “Americans are all greedy idiots” – and agree with you that equivocating Bush and Obama into one hopeless message of cynicism was at best lazy. So I used to like that ending, but now I’m not down with it (though I still like the structure of what he was attempting in principle). You changed my mind. That doesn’t happen often. Victory is yours, Vern.

  5. JD: What gave it away that it was set in Boston? I thought it was intentionally set in NOLA.

  6. I’m sorry Vern, please don’t get mad, but be honest, if this was the year 2005 and this movie was shitting on Bush and Bush’s America, would you have gotten as mad? or is it the fact that it’s shitting on Obama that makes you mad?

    I’m not saying I agree with the movie’s message, but it does seem like anti-Americanism was a lot more in vogue during the Bush years but now even liberal people get offended when it’s aimed at Obama’s America, am I wrong?

    I agree though that it sucks when a fictional movie gets TOO heavy handed with it’s political message, politics work best in a movie where you’re able to figure out the metaphors yourself without the movie making it explicitly clear, like V For Vendetta, the movie’s set in Britain and is based on an 80’s comic book, but you don’t have to think too hard to figure out it’s about George W Bush even though the movie never mentions his name

  7. Suddenly I’m not so disappointed in the fact that I missed this at my local theater.

    Speaking of (hopefully) cool crime flicks, the trailer for Welcome to The Punch looks pretty rad. A British crime movie made up as a slick Asian thriller – certainly got my blood-pumping more than Man of Steel did.

  8. Griff: It’s not the anti-americanism, it’s the bad filmmaking.

    onthewall: The accents; the references to Somerville and Haverhill; the book is a sequel to “Friends Of Eddie Coyle”….It was really kind of an insult to New England to shoot it in New Orleans.

  9. Those references went over my head. I had just assumed it was New Orleans because of the trip Russell makes to Florida, and knowing beforehand it was shot there. Then yeah, that definitely lessens my appreciation of this.

  10. JD: I’m not sure but I thought Dominik was going for a nameless Everycity kind of deal. He may or may not have realized the Boston references were in there, but I don’t think they ever say it’s Boston or Massachusetts. McNairy was doing a Boston accent but not everybody was.

    Joseph: Well, I wish I went the other way and convinced you to like something more instead of less, but I’ll take victory where I can get it.

    Griff: Well, first of all a Bush speech doesn’t have the same meaning as an Obama speech, but yes, I think I would still have hated it for the same reasons. A good comparison might be the Masters of Horror episode HOMECOMING by Joe Dante. It’s got a cool satirical zombie premise, an anti-war, anti-Republican message that I agree with and got great reviews from some people. I thought it was a piece of shit because the “satire” was so heavy-handed and obvious and it ruined the horror side of it.

  11. The book was nowhere near as good as EDDIE COYLE. It had the same style of being all-dialogue, all-the-time, but it seemed kind of over-written, like Higgins over-thought his style. There’s a lot more affectation, characters will stammer or change their train-of-thought mid-sentence and it becomes kind of a mess to try and sort out. It doesn’t have that cleanness that COYLE had where details slowly pile up to paint this portrait of a tangled network of thieves and killers. COGAN’s story is actually much simpler, but it ends up seeming way more convoluted just because it’s harder to keep track of who everyone is and what they want.

  12. Definitely could have benefited from the low-key nature of the EDDIE COYLE film. This whole movie could’ve fit into a 30 second aside from a montage in a Scorsese film, so emphasizing the simple, laid-back nature of it would’ve been a lot better than the bombastic self-importance of the film’s style and pseudo-message. Still, I definitely enjoyed it, and didn’t really mind Cogan’s criticism of Obama’s speech at the end (I’m not as taken with the man as many here are). Dominik really likes it when people’s heads get split in two by gunshots though, doesn’t he?

  13. The Original... Paul

    December 11th, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I’m genuinely surprised anybody’s heard of this one. I figured it’d be another “Detachment” – a little-known movie that just happens to star some big names in Hollywood. I very nearly saw it months ago when it was first released over here, but I was coming off the triple-whammy of depression that was “Forgiveness of Blood”, “The Hunter”, and “Detachment” itself. I read that this wasn’t exactly uplifting and felt I didn’t want a fourth movie that set out to make me want to kill myself. Good to know that some of my scepticism was justified.

  14. You’re surprised that WE have heard of the movie from the director of CHOPPER and the writer of The Friends of Eddie Coyle? Have you been here before?

  15. Well i loved it. Didn´t care much about the Politics to be honest. But loved the acting, dialogue and the humour.
    During the “Florida Trip” scene, or the Heroin scene, i nearly pissed my pants. The sawed off Shotgun was great too.
    But it seems that i´am in the minority position on this one. It dont get much love sadly, but it´s one of my favorites
    of the year.

  16. But i must say, i also wished the movie had stood proud to his genre roots.
    If it is not enough to make a first class crime movie, based on a George V.Higgins book, something is wrong.
    But i dont think it´s so much anti Obama, i found it more anti political Establishment in general.

  17. Spot-on review. The card-game heist is amazing, though. I assume that’s the bit of the film you’re referring to where the background TV/political commentary works, if only because it’s mostly reduced to an incomprehensible mumble.

  18. Pike – I agree, I don’t think it was meant to be specifically anti-Obama. I just think that the way Dominik uses that speech in the last scene is a misunderstanding of what it meant to Americans. That aspect pissed me off while writing the review, but even taking the whole scene away the heavy-handed way the message is handled throughout the movie is just unfortunate. Otherwise it could be a classic. It’s pretty great otherwise.

  19. “Griff: Well, first of all a Bush speech doesn’t have the same meaning as an Obama speech, but yes, I think I would still have hated it for the same reasons. A good comparison might be the Masters of Horror episode HOMECOMING by Joe Dante. It’s got a cool satirical zombie premise, an anti-war, anti-Republican message that I agree with and got great reviews from some people. I thought it was a piece of shit because the “satire” was so heavy-handed and obvious and it ruined the horror side of it.”

    you know, I thought the same thing, as a matter of fact I thought both of Dante’s episodes for that show were bad, although HOMECOMING was at least a lot better then the abysmal THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION

  20. I didn’t care for this movie at all. I think I had all the wrong expectations. I knew it had a heavy handed political message, but I thought it was going to be more entertainment than art. Mind you I like a good arty crime movie from time to time. I enjoyed Drive quite a bit, I flat out adore The Wire (TV), but this felt clumsy and ham handed in its direction. And while I enjoy odd ball characters, these folks were just out and out annoying. It was like spending time making small talk with people who i don’t like and don’t want to listen to. I love dialog with conflict in it, where you can feel the characters maneuvering around one another getting at some motivation. Here much of the dialog was like two trains passing in the night, each character intoning their own internal and pedantic monologues at one another.

    And the story felt just about thread bare to me, just nothing interesting or the least bit surprising. The motivations were all out in the open. While the acting was strong and the characters interesting, I just didn’t feel that interested or entertained by it.

    And I agree the message here was heavy handed and out of place. The idea that these people would be constantly listening to political speeches was laughable.

  21. “Pike – I agree, I don’t think it was meant to be specifically anti-Obama. I just think that the way Dominik uses that speech in the last scene is a misunderstanding of what it meant to Americans. That aspect pissed me off while writing the review, but even taking the whole scene away the heavy-handed way the message is handled throughout the movie is just unfortunate. Otherwise it could be a classic. It’s pretty great otherwise.”

    I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I’m an American expat in Australia. Australians view Americans through their own lens. They’re super-far to the left of America, so even Obama comes off looking as right wing to a country with no death penalty and universal healthcare. They’re really ironic and nasty to each other, so earnestness and sentimentality and good speeches get mocked – fuck, Aussies mock Springsteen! And good TV! And suggary cereal! And nuclear power! plus the sun kinda boils brains so half of them are conspiricy crazed hippies and a bunch others are racist xenophobes.

    they have even their own insult for Americans – ‘seppo’. yank = septic tank – seppo. seriously

  22. Ah, shut ya gob, ya bloody seppo.

  23. Brimstone: Well, that’s about what you’d expect from Australians, I guess. Next time the Aussies start mocking Obama for being sincere, just remind ’em that their ancestors were murderers, rapists, and whores.

  24. They take a perverse pride in it!

  25. Thank God we got the convicts and not the puritans!

  26. Brimstone, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Most Australians (including me) do consider Obama to be slightly right-of-center and Republicans utterly terrifying. Australia does have an appalling history of racism and xenophobia that continues today. Australians do generally mock everyone and everything, even sugary cereals and nuclear power which are apparently sacred cows near and dear to every American’s heart.

    But saying that half of us are brain-boiled conspiracy theorists and/or racist xenophones is somewhat of an exaggeration. It’s clearly more like 40 to 45 percent.

    Oh, and if you travel the globe you’ll find that most countries have their own insults for Americans but they aren’t quite as polite as Australia’s.

    Australia: Where we call our mates “cunt” and cunts, “mate”.

  27. Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo

    December 12th, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    I liked this movie a lot. I’m really down on America and Obama these days, so whereas at one point I might’ve told this Australian director to go fuck himself, who does he think he is, etc., instead I was laughing pretty hard at all the jabs at this fucked up country. I really enjoyed the ending ‘gag’ too.

    I’m sympathetic to people who found it too heavy-handed and on the nose and whatnot, that’s all a valid criticism. I think the movie would’ve been just as strong and less heavy-handed (though still pretty heavy-handed) if they’d left the opening and closing scenes the same but removed all the background radio and TV election season stuff. All that aside, it was just the kind of cynical little piece of work I could connect with in these times.

    As a crime movie I liked it a lot too. James Gandolfini’s scenes are so great and unexpected, and that Higgins dialogue is so sharp. The cinematography was nice enough that afterwards I wanted to look up who did it.

    I do think Dominik probably overestimates how many random TVs in America are tuned into C-SPAN at any given time.

  28. Is it just me, or is it Obama’s 2012 speech playing in the last scene, not his 2008 speech? I could have sworn I caught a lot of snippets that are still fresh in my mind from last month. The “gay or straight” line for instance. Or does his 2012 speech contain a lot of recycled material? I was so confused during that last scene…

  29. I basically agree 100 percent with you Dikembe Mutombo, I loved it. One thing though is I’ve seen a lot of people criticize how everyone is listening to c-span. I can see if it was too on-the-nose for some people but saying it’s unrealistic seems a little weird, I don’t think it was meant to be. It’s also like how I didn’t think it was meant to take place in Boston at all. If anything it looked like it took place in the same city as in Payback. Where cellphones and rotary phones exist together and all the small time criminals drive beat up muscle cars and everybody else drives modern cars. It all seemed to be there to contribute to the mood and atmosphere and help tell the story, not anything to do with realism.

    But that’s me and I’m just kind of tired of this obsession over humorless realism and canon and continuity and all that type of shit that I see in some corners of the internet.

    Also Vern, no one is paying attention to the election on the tv in the bar because it showed everyone who cares parading out in the streets. And I think the final scene isn’t making fun of the idea of fixing america so much as the idea that Obama was ever going to. Which is nothing but hilarious now.

  30. Vern, I know Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech meant a lot to you and that you cut out newspaper clippings about it and stuck them in your secret Obama scrapbook, but I imagine that to the forty-odd percent of people who didn’t vote for him it was just another political speech full of hollow rhetoric and empty gestures. Saying that Dominik “shit on hope” and comparing Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. seems a little overblown, and I say this as a fan of Obama.

  31. I didn’t mean to compare Obama to King, but fuck it, he’s the first black president. I doubt King would feel too bad about the comparison, even if he would have some strong words with Obama about some of his foreign policy.

    All I’m trying to say about the scene is that it’s real proud of itself for “pointing out” exactly what every idiot in the world already fuckin knows. Most Americans believe “America is a business” and that’s why it was meaningful that Obama inspired us to set aside our cynicism to try to believe in working together to accomplish things that were not accomplished during 8 years of Clinton and not considered during 8 years of Bush. And it sucks that I’m writing this in the comments for a crime movie but it wasn’t my idea to bury a great movie under superficial political-ish bullshit.

    Or maybe THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE should have a bunch of Nixon and Hubert Humphrie speeches in it.

  32. Brimstone, I hate to break it to you, but those views you mention aren’t specifically Australian, they pretty much go for the whole world.

  33. The Original... Paul

    December 13th, 2012 at 2:06 am

    Vern – well, it didn’t strike me as an action film, more of an arthouse crime caper (which I guess from your review is pretty accurate). I guess the closest comparison I could come up with would be “The Hunter”, which starred Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill – ok, neither of whom are Brad Pitt, but they’re not exactly unknowns either. I don’t think anybody else even commented on that one. (Which is kind of a shame, because it was a fascinating film in many respects and I’d like to see how it struck some other people.)

  34. And then Vern reminds why I visit this site regularly.

    I also find cynicism to be incredibly annoying. It’s primary function seems to be simultaneously accomplishing nothing and whining about nothing being accomplished.

  35. Vern, I think we’re on the same page about glib political cynicism. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I’ll reserve judgement about Pitt’s speech until I’ve seen it in context.

    I know you didn’t mean it in a partisan way, but your use of the phrase “shit on hope” made me laugh because it reminded me of Republicans accusing people of “hating freedom”. Obama has claimed ownership of that word in a similar way.

  36. “Where cellphones and rotary phones exist together and all the small time criminals drive beat up muscle cars and everybody else drives modern cars.”

    See this sells me on the movie

  37. I finally got around to watching this, and, as usually, Vern’s review is pretty spot on. The snippets of news about the financial crises were incredibly distracting. There was a way to put the film in a particular time and place, but shoving it in your face wasn’t effective. I kind of liked Pitt’s speech at the end, though. That was the only time where I felt like the political stuff actually melded with the grimy underworld material. Part of the reason is probably because before seeing the film, I was reading up on the HSBC money laundering scandal, where a bank protected drug cartels and “rogue nations” and received little more than a slap on the wrist from the government. Apparently, the bank was too big to prosecute. Somethings just don’t change.

  38. Just watched this movie. Loved it. I don’t think the political stuff was heavy-handed at all. The fact that it makes its political agenda obvious doesn’t mean it’s heavy-handed, and I find it disappointing that any smart person would offer criticism along the lines of “I’m just trying to watch some criminals do some crimes; why is there all this politics involved?” I hate it that people think they’re so sophisticated nowadays that they can’t handle any overt themes in their movies. Everything has to be vague and subtle. I think that’s a stupid and unproductive attitude.

    I also find it kind of hilarious that a liberal would dislike the political message because it’s cynical about Obama’s politics. The country’s gradual and inexorable shift to the right has apparently reached the point where even liberals can’t imagine anything left of Obama. Obama voted for TARP, dude. By the time that acceptance speech rolled around most of us leftists already knew that Obama wasn’t drastically different than W. If you think that attitude is cynical, maybe we (the country) should have that discussion instead of just shitting on all the leftists and radicals while the whole country moves further and further to the right under our watch.

    Another thing about the movie’s politics that’s cool is that it deliberately juxtaposes this national economic “crisis” with a parallel underworld economy. I love that. While Obama and Bush and all those assholes are worried about propping up the banks, the half of the country that’s too poor to even pay taxes just goes on living and dying the best they can.

    I realize I’m being a total asshole here. Sorry. I feel like the Vern of 2007 would have been on my side. And I realize that that’s another asshole thing to say. Whatever. I loved this movie. Go America!

  39. I feel like you don’t understand what I find so patronizing about that last scene, but that’s fine, I don’t think you’re being an asshole. The only point you make that I have a big problem with is claiming that it’s not heavy-handed. I think I would understand “I like how ridiculously heavy-handed and intrusive the political stuff is, it’s operatic or something. It works for me,” but I don’t think there is really a strong argument for “not heavy-handed.”

  40. Could somebody do an edit of this like they did with Jar Jar in the Phantom Menace? I just saw this and I loved this movie. Fucking loved it. Except for for the political bullshit and the terrible music choices and the pointless slo-mo sequence. Just cut some audio bits and it’s the best movie of the year.

  41. So I read like, the first 2 paragraphs or so of Vern’s review and stopped where he said “But he does something that I hate” and waited until I saw the movie myself. Then watching the movie I was thinking to myself “So what aspect of it is Vern going to have a problem with?” (Which is why you shouldn’t read ANY part of ANY review before you see a movie by the way, but no biggie).

    Well it becomes increasingly obvious throughout the film that it was gonna be the constant political media in the background, and lo and behold. And it’s NOT because they’re like, anti-Obama speeches, which maybe they are or not but it’s not the point. The point is precisely because they’re used in a tone-deaf matter. Remember how in LET ME IN they had the Reagan speeches and it was fucking chillingly integrated into the film? You can do this sort of thing well. This movie just doesn’t do it well. While my lady and I watched it the term “heavy handed” occurred to us both and we were quite satisfied with how perfectly that described the manner in which the radio shit in the background was used. So yes, put us down for the “heavy handed” verdict please.

    Vern: I’d like to note that during the acceptance speech at the end, you see people outside parading with glowsticks or something through the window, so the film DOES acknowledge that it was a lovely moment for some people.

    I don’t know that I agree that you are in ANY way supposed to look at Pitt’s character as being sage or wise or even “somewhat right”. It’s a pretty bleak movie with bleak characters who have a bleak outlook on life, and I’m somewhat sold that taking what’s the most definitively positive moment in American culture in the past 13 years and having these guys shit all over it could have been an effective way of solidifying how bleak and hopelessly bitter these characters are. Could have been, had the movie not completely overstepped the bounds of poetic license with that shit by five minutes into the movie. So yeah it didn’t work for me. I don’t think it’s Dominik’s big “fuck you” to America and Obama, but the whole motif was used in a surprisingly inept manner from a historically adept director.

  42. Well said, Renfield. I think I threw people off with my personal reaction to that last scene. The much larger problem is apolitical, really. It’s the way the news clips are intrusively shoved into so many scenes more to signify political relevance than to actually make a strong point. And they do that to the detriment of the very strong story, characters and dialogue.

  43. The tvs tuned to C-SPAN and the radios tuned to NPR news in KILLING THEM SOFTLY are like the Hellmouth in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, or the pervasive sense of apocalyptic dread in DONNIE DARKO, or the fact that everyone knows capoeira fu in ONLY THE STRONG, or the omniscience of gambling & horses & horse race television in LUCK (great tv show, by the way).

    It’s an element of the atmosphere of the movie (the movie separate from real life as we know it), an endogenous factor that manifests itself in what we see in the frame and contributes to the themes but has nothing to do with reality (or what we *would* see in what *would* be reality, not a movie). It doesn’t want to have anything to do with reality or realism. It’s a movie, a statement, not a naturalistic depiction of criminals or of life during/after the Bush financial crisis. I liked it.

    The politics/bailout/gambling/financial crisis stuff was mostly so explicitly on the nose & up front with itself that it transcended its own on-the-noseness, like how Joseph Kahne’s TORQUE has all those ridiculous self-aware references and the huge PEPSI vs. MOUNTAIN DEW mise en scene. I didn’t get pissed off at the product placement like I normally would — I loved it! Because it’s supposed to be there, making a statement on product placement.

    Same thing happening in KILLING THEM SOFTLY with the Bush/Obama/Paulson speeches, and I’m not sure I get the other complaints, either, about wanting to just leave the movie as a good crime story with only a hint at the political stuff. I mean, there’s no other movies that have done this before, not this specifically & pointedly. That makes KILLING THEM SOFTLY unique, possibly groundbreaking in my opinion. It’s like A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (if you at all agree with my interpretation that Cronenberg’s masterpiece is about America and the Global War on Terror), but with the subtext raised to the level of text, and okay yeah that text is then shoved in your face a bit much. But I liked it. Didn’t love, just liked.

  44. So, just saw this one and I’m sort of thinking that the whole problem is you’re NOT supposed to side with Cogan at the end. Cogan’s an asshole. Cogan is Michael Douglas in WALL STREET. He’s just a slick, self-righteous piece of shit who thinks the mere fact that he’s good at playing the game makes him important. Fact is, no one else in this movie wants everything to end in violence. Even the mobsters who got robbed don’t want to hurt anyone. But Cogan pushes them into it. He’s the devil, he’s the tempter who pushes normal people to deny their better nature and turn horrible, and then he wants to claim that it wasn’t his idea, he didn’t invent the game, he’s just a realist. When in fact, the game is only as awful as it is because of him. I read his final speech, then, as cynical not because he’s right, but because no one is willing to tell him he’s wrong. There’s that voice on the TV, sure, but that’s a long, long way away from the beaten down, broken characters we see on screen. America is a business because he says it is, but only until we decide it’s not. He has to make fun of Obama, because if he were to take him seriously he’d have to acknowledge what a despicable asshole he is — but I think Dominick may be inviting US to make a different decision.

    On the other hand, it may not have been the best move ever to cast Brad Pitt in that role. Because he’s fucking Brad Pitt, so when he does something it looks cool, and when he says something you take him seriously. Might have been wiser to cast someone who’s more of an antihero, not so fucking charming.

  45. I don’t think I see that. I’m pretty sure he’s the “hero” in that he’s the one guy who just wants to do his job and be paid for it. Like the Parker novels, it’s just a story about working men doing their jobs. That their jobs might involve crime or violence isn’t relevant to who’s right or who’s wrong.

    There’s a character on The Wire who says something about how “We used to build shit in this country. Now everyone just wants to put their hand in the other guy’s pocket.” That’s what the movie is all about. Brad Pitt is the competent laborer who just wants to do his job, do it right the first time, and be paid square, while everyone else is looking to cheat and scam or do it halfassed. I think there was even a line about how people advertise themselves for a job and then they just end up halfassing it even though they’re being paid to do exactly what they said they would do in the first place, like the guy he calls in to help him later who just sits around in his hotel the whole time.

    I saw his speech at the end as him already being in a bad mood because he had to hang out with that guy before killing him, which is exactly what he said he hated doing, and not only that he’s told he’s not being paid what he’s due (earlier he yells at a guy for taking the tip he left for a waitress, you don’t cheat the worker). So he goes off on a little rant about the whole broken system. Competence isn’t rewarded, everyone is breaking the rules but it’s only ever going to be the little guys who get punished for it, etc. Just a guy in a bar letting off some steam after a bad day at work.

  46. That’s an interesting way of looking at it, but do you really think the movie expects us to side with Cogan and be mad on his behalf that they balk at giving him an extra $15,000 (that weren’t part of their original agreement) just because he’s a competent worker? I mean, everything about the casting and styling of Pitt’s character seems to suggest they want us to think he’s wise and cool, but I just don’t see how it’s possible to be on his side by the end.

    As far as being a competent laborer goes… I dunno, it’s an interesting idea, but I definitely didn’t walk away thinking Pitt was better at his job than anyone else (partly because his job seems pretty easy… just drive up next to someone and shoot them, no elaborate planning or precautions necessary). I’m sort of wondering now if it’s just that he’s the only one who seems to take pride in his job. Everyone else seems to kind of have lingering doubts about what they’re doing because they’re amoral scumbags. Pitt may be the worst of them, but at least he’s honest about who he is and what he does, and genuinely OK with it (even if his logic is pretty self-serving).

  47. Just watched this on a plane ride; loved it, and loved the last scene. I haven’t read the Cogan books, but recently read a glowing review of them, and was really interested. I found the film to feature a lot of the stated virtues of the books: clarity of dialogue, rich characters, and an amoral lead whose primary characteristic is being good at his job. And I have to agree with Eric above that I also found the political messages unobtrusive. I’m pretty dense film-wise–one of the reasons I like reading good reviews like this is that they can point out the BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS things I miss–but I found the effect of all the C-SPAN for me was one of contrast with the wider world of the film. I watched the last scene again on youtube and decided I couldn’t send it to a friend as a recommendation, not just because it depended on wider plot context, but also because its tone was so different, so slow-paced and low-key. Without being immersed in what’s come before, it wouldn’t have impact. Anyway, all that to say I found the film’s world to be immersive, and I found the political bloviation, which, when I was listening to it in 2007 in real-life, was really important to me and lots of other people, to be shown as puffy and hollow and useless by comparison. In thinking about it I remembered Freddy Riedenschneider’s closing argument in _The Man Who Wasn’t There_: high-stakes, artful, and complete bullshit. And as such, relegated to the background. Probably all the C-SPAN should be stuck further in the background! But it didn’t distract me.

    And I guess because I wasn’t distracted or already annoyed by the film, the final speech landed a lot more effectively for me. So to answer some of your points: I don’t think Cogan or the filmmaker is offering cynicism, or at least they’re not offering it without the payload of action, a way to “strive for something better and…attempt to work toward it.” Jefferson, as the man who wrote his inspirational words, was in the position to take action against slavery and didn’t. Obama as the author of his inspirational words was in the position to take actions against unequal bosses, the folks who job you out of $15k because they feel like they can and have no appreciation for the difficulty of what you’re doing–more about that in a sec–, and didn’t. In other words, fine, take politicians for their rhetoric, but don’t expect them to help anyone but themselves with their actual power. Cogan and the director aren’t shitting on hope, they’re pointing out how frustrating it is to have hope be the only output from people who could give more. “In America, you’re on your own,” says Cogan. But he continues, showing for virtually the first time in the film a whisper of temper: “Now fucking pay me.” Cogan has the advantage here of being very good at killing people, which tends to focus the mind, but is there any doubt that condescending, smoke-averse Richard Jenkins is going to fold? But it seems to me that Cogan will get his money not because (or not solely because) of his profession, but because he’s a professional. He has the power, with the message being that there’s a similar relationship between other workers–like the people watching this film–and their putative masters, the Obamas and Dimons et al. And if that seems a little socialistic, hey, others here have commented how far left Australia is politically. :) Anyway, that doesn’t seem to me to be a message of cynicism at all–socialism’s as doe-eyed a political philosophy as any–but Cogan demonstrates that when it’s allied with libertarianism and self-reliance and self-awareness, it can also be pretty badass.

    I also didn’t agree with your connection between Cogan and the big banks in re: the title and the concept of “killing them softly”. Parker Barnes is right on the money with his quote from The Wire, and while both Cogan and the banks are destructive, Cogan differs in that he provides a service someone else finds useful, and is good at delivering that service. The concept of wanting to kill them softly comes from Cogan’s self-knowledge: he knows he has emotions, and that they interfere with him doing his job well, so in order to keep them from intruding, he likes to keep the emotions surrounding the action soft. It struck me in watching that all three of Cogan’s murders were perfunctory and clean, with a minimum of suffering–think of him counseling against Markie’s assault–but in reading this it occurred to me that they were that way because Cogan’s mercy also helps Cogan. Compare that to the perpetrators of Markie’s beating: rage-filled and hair-trigger, and worse professionally for it. So the title becomes a reference to Cogan’s self-knowledge, emotional weakness–aka humanity–and professionalism.

    Thanks for your review, and thanks for the chance to talk about a film I liked so much!

  48. Thanks Mark. You’re making me want to try it again when it comes to video. I wish the C-SPAN stuff didn’t bother me because if so I would’ve loved it.

  49. Knox Harrington

    May 5th, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Watched this today and fucking loved it. Loved the last scene and Pitt’s final lines. Thought it cut to the credits at the perfect spot. Great way to end the film.

    It would probably have benefited from having less radio and news footage, etc (all the heavy-handed stuff that Vern was complaining about), simply because I think that element of the film makes people read way too much into it, and they end up looking for metaphors and symbolism that isn’t there. For me, it simply served as a way of creating a backdrop for the story; a time and place that would emphasize the themes of greed and the film’s cynical tone. It never really seemed to me that Dominik was trying to make some mind-blowing statement. I don’t know, maybe Americans are more sensitive to this kinda thing, which is understandable, I guess.

    Anyway, as someone who thinks that The Assassination of Jesse James is one of the 3 best films to come out of the U.S. over the past decade or so, I’m glad to see that Dominik is the talented filmmaker that I thought he was. And that Greig Fraser guy is one damn good cinematographer. Loved his work on Snow White and the Huntsman and Zero Dark Thirty.

  50. I got around to watching this one the other day and found it to be pretty boring. I wish I had read Mark’s post before watching the film. His insight is much more engaging and clearly stated then the film itself, and maybe it would have allowed me to enjoy it more but overall I was pretty disappointed.

  51. “Gandolfini’s character was at first interesting, but the longer he rambled on the more I fidgeted around in my seat. It felt labored in other parts as well, but that was what annoyed me the most. And I think James is a wonderful actor, but it felt a little like a Tony Soprano retread which I hope doesn’t happen again for him”

    I don’t regret this, but it really makes me want to see it again now that he’s passed away. I’ve been curious as to how it would play the 2nd time around, and maybe see it in a better light. My enjoyment of his performance suffered in tandem with my eventual realization that this wasn’t what I was hoping for.

    And FWIW I think he was a great actor in nearly everything he did. Even thinking about something like 8MM which I hated, he at least rose above the material. And of course, the show. I don’t think it’s the greatest ever but I will concede that without Tony Soprano we’d have no Vic Mackey, Walter White or Carrie Matheson on television now. I firmly believe that.

  52. I know this is an old review, but I am almost done with Cogan’s Trade, and it is fucking amazing. I really liked this movie the time I saw it, but I agree with pretty much every complaint given about the movie’s crowbarred-in political content. I didn’t make any sense and it distracted from an awesome crime story. The book, of course, has none of that shit, instead it has more of what was good about the movie, hard-ass, rambling dialogue. Fuckin’ love it, don’t wanna see this movie again now, because I know it will suck comparatively, just like Eddie Coyle. shit just can’t beat how I see and hear it in my head, I guess.

  53. Coincidentally, I just bought COGAN’S TRADE used for a buck yesterday. I’m still working on a different book (MARCH VIOLETS, the first in Philip Kerr’s excellent but increasingly misnamed BERLIN NOIR trilogy) so I wasn’t planning on starting it yet, but I read the first few lines (as I always do when purchasing a book) and ended up reading the first several pages because they were just so propulsive. Higgins was a goddamn wizard with dialogue. I’m kind of awed by him.

    At that same store I also bought Lawrence Block’s A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF (also a buck) and Jack Ketchum’s OFFSPRING (50 cents!). Possibly the best $2.50 I ever spent. I know used book stores will go the way of video stores in the very near future, so I’m just going to enjoy them while I can.

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