Released in November 2012, Andrew Dominik‘s Killing Them Softly is set in the long aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, at the peak of the global financial crisis, in the weeks leading up to the 2008 Presidential Election.
Adapted from Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Dominik shifted the setting from Boston to New Orleans in order to reference a more contemporary crisis.
While the film received mostly positive reviews from critics, audience reaction and box office totals were sadly not as kind. With a budget of just 15 million dollars, Killing Them Softly was a modest financial success that continues to divide audiences to this day.
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‘Killing Them Softly’: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
When their illegal poker operation is robbed by a pair of amateurs, the mob goes into crisis mode.
Simple retribution is not enough. Justice must be swift and decisive. It’s about restoring confidence and shaping the narrative. It’s about controlling the contagion.
America has suffered losses in the great recession and the Syndicate is no exception. They want to clean things up cheaply and quietly. They need a capable man.
Enter Jackie Cogan, portrayed with smoldering menace by a brooding Brad Pitt.
Jackie Cogan has his ways. Trade secrets, little tricks to get the job done right without dirtying his hands.
But this particular assignment defies existing precedent. The rules of supply and demand are simply too far out of whack.
In the end, despite his best intentions, Cogan’s forced to tidy up the mess himself.
‘Killing Them Softly’: Full Plot Summary
Killing Them Softly opens with a montage audio clips from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches, spliced into the title credits and a few brief scenes of ex-con Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walking through the ruined streets of New Orleans.
Frankie meets up with Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a rather filthy-looking Australian heroin addict who makes his living stealing pet dogs and re-selling them in Florida.
Frankie and Russell sit down with Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), the shady owner of a dry cleaning business used as a front for his illegal endeavors. Squirrel needs to hire some men to carry out a robbery, but he’s skeptical of Russell.
Squirrel explains the details of the heist.
The target is a poker game. There’s forth thousand dollars up for grabs. Normally, robbing a mob-protected card game is a stupid idea, but this one is different.
This particular event is run by Markie Trappman.
Years earlier, Markie ran a different game that also got robbed. The mob suspected Markie was behind the heist. And they were absolutely right.
The missing cash created a crisis on the streets. Nobody had any money to spend on hookers, drugs or gambling.
The mob sent a hit man called Dillon (Sam Shepard) to interrogate Trattman. They roughed him up, but Markie kept his mouth shut under questioning.
Eventually, the underground economy recovered. The weekly game started up again. Unable to determine what happened to the money, or even who stole it, the mob put Markie back in charge.
One night, a few months later, Markie was playing poker with some friends. Everybody was drinking and telling funny stories and Trattman got so drunk, he admitted it was him who robbed the game. But since most of the money didn’t belong to the mob in the first place, they let it slide.
So—if Markie’s game gets hit AGAIN, the mob will murder him immediately. In other words, Markie Trattman is the perfect cover. His card game is the perfect hit.
Squirrel’s explanation of the whole situation is described using language that mirrors the events of the 2008 Financial Crisis, with the mob standing as the banking system, and the poker game as an avatar for the Stock Market.
Poorly masked and carrying weapons of dubious lethality, Frankie and Russell infiltrate the card game and demand the money.
The patrons look unconvinced, let alone afraid.
Markie takes Russell to a back room to retrieve the cash, calmly trying to talk him out of it. But Russell doesn’t take the bait. He brings the suitcase full of money back out to the main room.
Instead of just escaping with the loot, Frankie robs every player of their personal cash, along with watches, jewellery and other valuables. In the background, George W. Bush makes a televised speech meant to reassure Americans the financial system will survive the crisis.
Russell and Frankie escape the game unscathed. They speed away in a stolen car as the first act fades to a close.
Act Two opens with Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) driving through New Orleans, sound tracked by Johnny Cash.
He meets an unnamed businessman (Richard Jenkins) in an empty parking lot. Eventually, we deduce the man is a lawyer who represents the corporate arm of the Mob.
Cogan and The Lawyer discuss the delicate situation surrounding Markie Trattman’s poker game.
Cogan thinks the best course of action is to kill Trattman immdiately, whether he was behind the robbery or not. To Cogan, the most important thing is messaging. If other crooks think the mob is vulnerable, these types of hits will just continue.
But The Lawyer says the Mob is squeamish when it comes to murder. They prefer a different approach. They don’t want to kill Markie unless they have to. They want to have a talk with him first.
Skeptical of the plan, Cogan begrudgingly agrees.
In a night scene, two men (Max Casella, Trevor Long) kidnap Markie Trattman at gun point. Pleading with them in the pouring rain, Trattman swears to have no connection with the robbery.
The men beat Markie senseless. Failing to extract any information, they leave him lying on the pavement, bloodied and sobbing.
Behind the wheel of a “new” car, a well-groomed Frankie collects Russell from the train station.
They return to Russell’s house. In a heavily stylized scene that implies he’s high on heroin, Russell recounts the story of his recent business trip to Florida.
Although his failed stolen dog selling enterprise provides a funny anecdote, his story also reveals an important detail: Russell’s partner on the adventure was Kenny Gill (Slaine), a low-end thug who works for Dillon.
In a heroin induced haze, Russell admits that he told Kenny about the Trattman robbery. Frankie, Russell and Squirrel are in big trouble. The Mob knows it was them.
Jackie Cogan meets The Lawyer to provide an update.
Cogan thinks the Mob should take out Frankie, Russell, Squirrel and Trattman. The Lawyer doesn’t totally agree.
In the end, they reach a compromise. Cogan will kill Trattman, Russell and Frankie. For Squirrel, the Mob will contract Mickey, a hit man from New York.
Cogan explains that an outside hire is necessary because Squirrel knows both him and Dillon. Cogan says he prefers to kill people from a distance, so there’s less emotion involved. He prefers to kill them “softly.”
Mickey (James Gandolfini) flies in from New York and rendezvous with Cogan at a restaurant.
It’s immediately clear that Mickey has developed a problem with alcohol. He’s also under an indictment for a firearms violation in Maryland that may result in a lengthy prison sentence, not to mention a divorce.
Later that night, Cogan meets with Kenny at a cafe across the street from the hospital.
They spot Markie as he exists the hospital and follow him home through the rain. With Kenny behind the wheel, they stop next to Markie at a red light. Cogan lowers his window and raises his gun and empties a clip into Markie’s head.
Cogan drops by Mickey’s hotel room. A prostitute zips her dress, collects her money and sees herself out. By the end of Cogan’s visit it becomes clear that Mickey is in the midst of a sex and alcohol fuelled downward spiral. He’s in no shape to complete the job that he’s been hired to do.
Jackie Cogan and The Lawyer have another meeting. Cogan lets him know that Mickey is a lost cause and they can’t use for him the hit. Cogan will have to finish the job himself.
High as a kite, Russell enters the train station to retrieve a brick of heroin from a storage locker. Halfway to the exit, he’s surrounded by a group of undercover cops and arrested on the spot.
At the laundromat, Frankie tells Squirrel what happened to Russell. Squirrel seems unbothered by the story, and equally unbothered by the contract on their heads. But Frankie remains anxious, while also expressing a sincere sense of dread.
Jackie Cogan walks into a tavern in a sketchy part of town. He takes a seat at the bar—right next to Frankie.
Cogan orders a beer and strikes up a conversation. He implies that if Frankie helps him kill Squirrel, he’ll be off the hook. Terrified, Frankie agrees.
The next night, Frankie picks up Cogan in a stolen car. They drive to Squirrel’s house and park across the street.
Squirrel rolls to a stop and parks his car. He escorts his girl to the door of her apartment building. As he returns to his vehicle, Cogan shoots him twice with a shotgun: one shot to knock him down, one shot in the back of the head.
Cogan hops into the car and Frankie hits the gas. But Frankie’s driving becomes so erratic that Cogan is forced to take the wheel.
Cogan parks the stolen car next to his personal vehicle and gets out. Frankie slides across the seat and takes the wheel. While he and Frankie discuss the next steps, Cogan calmly takes out his shotgun and blows Frankie’s head off.
On election night, as Barack Obama makes his acceptance speech on the TV set above the bar, Cogan meets The Lawyer to collect his money. But the amount inside the envelope is ten thousand dollars short.
As he demands to be paid in full, Jackie Cogan delivers a brutal speech about the true nature of America, a speech that completely and robustly contradicts the contents of the Presidential Address playing in the background.
Opinion: My Review of ‘Killing Them Softly’ (2012)
Film Noir must be set in the realm of what is possible. If not our own reality, then some perverse version of it, where dread and paranoia are stretched to absurd, often revelatory proportions.
Killing Them Softly is no exception. It takes place firmly in contemporary America, in the world that we inhabit every day.
While the dialogue-heavy script may bore the thriller crowd, in Killing Them Softly, the dialogue is the whole point.
Real crime happens slowly and doesn’t always work out well. Real crooks are average folks, they hold everyday opinions and make unpretentious conversation.
Noir relies on the bad guy’s perspective, not that of some gun toting do-gooder who’s irresistible to women and never fully shuts his mouth.
The only point of view on offer here is that of the criminals who populate the story. The unique way they speak to one another is what brings these characters to life.
Music is used sparingly. Wreckage backdrops nearly every scene. The only female character is a prostitute.
Presidential speeches, recorded in the aftermath of the financial crisis, provide thematic continuity as the plot unfolds.
Violence is stylized but retains plausibility: brief and brutal and never fair, the way real fights go down. No karate battles. No machine gun shoot-outs. No parkour acrobats vaulting roof to roof.
The worlds of crime and finance are juxtaposed in a straightforward, convincing manner. Both of them are decadent and corrupt. Both of them exploit the people.
Crucially, the political themes that underscore the broader narrative never feel intrusive. These characters are simply living out their lives under a given set of conditions.
Many films take this position and the comparison is nothing new. Crime fiction, in particular, likes to highlight these connections. The difference here is that the men in charge of these domains take extraordinary measures to restore confidence in systems they know are not worth saving.
Life without the system is simply unimaginable. Life without the system means not getting paid, or getting paid less, or doing something else altogether. And thus the system is preserved at any cost.
Consider these lines, delivered during a televised clip of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech, as fireworks and celebrations proliferate beyond the grimy tavern windows:
“My friend Jefferson’s an American saint because he wrote the words ‘all men are created equal.’ Words he clearly didn’t believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he wrote some lovely words and roused the rabble and they went out and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.
Killing Them Softly is not a thriller. It’s a brave and fully realized Neo-Noir, made by artists that respect and understand the genre. It’s a film about America that lots of people didn’t seem to like. And that’s exactly how you know it’s good.
Analysis: What’s ‘Killing Them Softly’ Really About?
I opted not to write a “Book vs. Movie” post for this review because I feel the film has been unfairly panned by basement dwelling trolls and intellectually unsophisticated pundits.
Many of these negative reviews focus on an imagined “left wing bias,” when the truth is, Killing Them Softly refuses to engage in simple left wing/right wing politics.
This film is concerned with economic inequality. Period. Last time I checked, poverty affects both sides of the aisle.
I suppose if one was barely paying attention, one might mistake the inclusion of President Obama’s speech for some kind of moralizing message.
But only an idiot would fail to realize the film is leveling a heavy critique against BOTH political parties for abandoning the working class.
Despite its action-movie marketing campaign, Killing Them Softly packs a healthy dose of social realism.
The clue is in the title: Who is “Them?”
In a literal sense, “Them” is all the souls Jackie Cogan has dispatched throughout his long career working as a contract killer.
In a figurative sense, “Them” are working-class Americans, slowly crushed beneath the weight of Neo-Liberal economic policy.
In the context of the film, this metaphor extends to the underprivileged residents of New Orleans, abandoned by their government, drowning in the churning wake of Hurricane Katrina.
But economic injustice is not Killing Them Softly‘s only message.
Consider its chief protagonist, Jackie Cogan. While the system fails the average citizen, Cogan thrives. His wits, his survival instinct, his economic independence—these traits stand in total contrast with the film’s primary discourse.
Yes, the system is breaking down—but Cogan lives outside the system.
The government is no longer equipped to deliver social services, but Cogan has no need for social services.
The rich are unwilling to fund government programs through increased taxes. Jackie doesn’t need to choose a side in that particular debate: he only works for cash anyway.
Jackie Cogan doesn’t need, want or care about the government at all.
Cogan is presented as a self-reliant maverick, basically a cowboy in the way in which he navigates the seedy underworld that he inhabits. At times, he even seems to enjoy these freedoms, despite the obvious risks.
Although he operates within a broader social justice narrative, Jackie Cogan is thus an avatar for the Libertarian economic ideologies that began gaining steam in America following the Great Recession.
In this respect, the Killing Them Softly has a lot in common with Michael Mann’s brilliant Thief, another film that espouses libertarian ideals.
Films that tell you what they’re saying usually say nothing at all. Killing Them Softly shows you what it’s saying, but only if you watch it with your eyes open.
Is ‘Killing Them Softly’ Worth Watching?
Killing Them Softy features a true ensemble cast, with brisk but shining performances from the likes of James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta and Ben Mendelsohn.
And don’t forget the too-handsome-for-neo-noir Brad Pitt, who lends the film some gravitas without having to carry the entire production on his back.
Released in 2012, the film explains our present moment better than its docudrama counterparts (Margin Call, The Big Short) ever could.
Prophetic yet accessible, it belongs on lists with films like District 9 (2009), The Babadook (2014), Relic (2020) and In Bruges (2008), genre movies that transcend their respective idioms, softly nudging you to think.
Killing Them Softly is available on most streaming services.
For more by divisive filmmaker Andrew Dominik, check out The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), or Blonde (2022).
Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominik
Date Created: 2023-12-07 20:48