When Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) gives his manifesto on how he operates as a hitman halfway through Killing Them Softly, he explains that he likes to kill people from a distance, so emotions can’t get in the way. The rest of the film is spent illustrating exactly how emotions complicate Cogan’s job. Directed by Andrew Dominik, who previously teamed with Pitt for 2007’s underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the film tells a lean crime story that highlights the mundane nature of the lives of hitmen and thieves.
The movie begins with two low-level criminals, played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, who rob an illegal poker game. The local crime bosses hire Cogan to find and kill them, so they can reopen the poker game and continue to make money. Throughout the film, Cogan acts as an agent of efficiency. He is someone who does what needs to be done to clean up messes so that everyone can return to the business of profit.
Pitt excels in the role, seething with frustration as the people around him make mistakes on account of their emotions, which he then has to fix. Much of the film is made up of long scenes of dialogue between Cogan and one other character, as he explains what they need to do next, and which they inevitably fail to do.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, particularly the two younger thieves. McNairy and Mendelsohn show how their criminal lifestyles have already worn them down, playing men with no other options left to take. Their false bravado in the early scenes gives way to despair as they begin to understand the consequences of their actions.
The characters higher up in the criminal structure serve a different purpose, showing how banal the problems faced in such a life are. Richard Jenkins plays the intermediary between Cogan and bosses as a bureaucrat, struggling with the bosses as they attempt to lead by committee.
By focusing on these normal problems, Dominik avoids the cliché of idealizing the characters in a crime story as larger-than-life figures. These characters speak plainly about the ugliness and violence they have to commit, and they don’t struggle with existential problems so much as immediate concerns. When another hitman, Mickey (James Gandolfini), is hired to help Cogan out, the first thing he does is explain how his marriage is falling apart. He then goes on a bender, drinking heavily and hiring multiple prostitutes. This moment also highlights the complete lack of female voices in the plot, an unfortunate flaw of the film.
The only time a female character appears is when one of the prostitutes leaves Mickey’s room, and other characters only talk about women as sexual objects. It certainly makes the characters easier to dislike, but it also gives the film as a whole a level of ugliness that seems unnecessary.
Of course, this is a story about a hitman, so moments of violence inevitably arise. These moments are heavily stylized, as Dominik uses slow-motion shots and handheld camerawork to differentiate the violence from the rest of the film. However, Dominik avoids the common use of such stylization of violence to make it seem unrealistic and more acceptable. Instead he forces the viewer to see not only the violence itself but the effect it has on the human body.
There are quite a few deeply uncomfortable shots of the aftermath of a beating or gunshot in the film. While these moments stand out from the style established in other sections of the movie, they do so in such away that enhances, rather than distracts from, the ongoing story. We see why Cogan prefers to avoid killing people up close, because even killing from a distance is deeply unpleasant.
As you might gather from that description, this is not an uplifting film. In fact, it is quite cynical. The story is set during the American election of 2008, when the country’s current recession had just begun. Throughout the film, various characters listen to the lofty promises in the speeches of John McCain and Barack Obama, or to the tired tones of President Bush as he attempts to explain his actions.
The contrast between the rhetoric of the presidential candidates and the dirty, harsh lives of the characters of the film highlights the disconnect between national politics and the reality of people’s lives. None of these characters believe they can count on receiving help from anyone else, so they do what they have to on their own.
Thankfully, the film does not overstay its welcome. At a length of just 97 minutes, it tells a concentrated, direct story. In a longer, more bloated version of the film, the unrelenting cynicism would become overwhelming, but in this shorter form it is acceptable. Viewers who disagree with the movie’s philosophy will at least be able to see how other people come to such conclusions about life. The story winds down as all of the loose ends from the initial heist are resolved, and the final scene gives Cogan the opportunity to give his own, and by extension the film’s, mission statement, ending in one of the most memorably final lines of dialogue in recent memory. Killing Them Softly will not leave you feeling happy with the world, but the questions it asks are more novel than would be expected of a typical crime story.