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Review: ‘Killing Them Softly’

The Business Of Murder

Above: Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins doing mob business in "Killing Them Softly."

George V. Higgins was Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts before becoming an author in 1970 with "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." His 1974 novel "Coogan's Trade" has just been adapted into the film "Killing Them Softly" (opened November 30 throughout San Diego).

As a writer, Higgins displayed a good ear for capturing the cadences of the criminal underworld and writing about that milieu without passing judgment. "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" was made into a gritty little film in 1973 with Robert Mitchum. But Higgins' work didn't draw interest from Hollywood again until "Killing Me Softly," which is taken from "Coogan's Trade." "Eddie Coyle" focused on a small-time hood and informant, someone on the lower rungs of the criminal ladder ,and Higgins painted the portrait in unglamorous terms. "Coogan's Trade" looked to someone higher up on the food chain, a hitman who works for unnamed big wigs at the top, people who pull strings and push buttons and never get their hands dirty. As one character in "The Godfather" says about the distance between those at the top and the men who pull the triggers, there are a lot of "buffers" in between. What's interesting about "Coogan's Trade" is the insider's view Higgins provides of how the mob functions.

The focal point of the film is a heist. A low level thug has the bright idea to rip off a local card game that had recently been ripped off. The thing is, Markie (Ray Liotta), the guy running the game, is the one that pulled off and got away with the original heist, even though everyone knows he did it. So the thinking is if there's a second heist all fingers will point to Markie and he'll take the fall. And that's sort of what happens. Markie takes the fall but Jackie (Brad Pitt), the hitman sent to settle the score, suspects that there may be others involved and he needs to track them down and tie up the job in one nice clean package.

The film's title, "Killing Them Softly," comes from a line Brad Pitt's character Jackie says. He explains that as a hired killer doesn't like to get close and personal when he offs someone, he prefers to kill them from a distance, "softly." But director Andrew Domink reveals what a hypocrisy that is. Two of the murders Jackie commits are shown in graphic detail. In the first murder, Dominik slows down the first murder so we get an oddly poetic yet brutally explicit visualization of exactly what kind of damage a bullet can do to a human being. The second murder is depicted more quickly but reveals quite explicitly that there is no such thing as killing someone softly. Murder is a brutal thing.

Dominik, who did the energetic "Chopper" and the dull "The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford," updates Higgins' tale and heavy-handedly inserts political commentary by featuring the 2008 presidential election as the backdrop for the story. He seems to draw parallels between the mob world and the way the political machine works. They are both businesses in which those at the top are well insulated from those down below doing the dirty work. And while the use of the political footage and sound bites feels forced on us, Dominik's message is less clear. Is he critical of the political process, the government, the candidates, Bush in particular? We know actor Brad Pitt is a strong Obama supporter so it seems unlikely Obama is the target of the criticism yet Obama's speeches seem to be mocked by what's going on in in the film.

One of the things that distinguished Higgins' books was the non-judgmental way he went about depicting the criminal underworld. He presented evidence and details to create a vivid, realistic world but he tended to leave moralizing out. Dominik, on the other hand, wants to insert a perspective although his point seems to be more smirky irony than focused social or political commentary.

The film engages us most through the performances of Pitt and James Gandolfini as very different hitmen; Richard Jenkins as a kind of mob bean counter trying to keep everything running smoothly; Ray Liotta as the unfortunate Markie whom everyone supposedly liked; and an all too brief appearance by Sam Shepherd. These performances keep the film lively and vivid. If only Dominik's direction could be as sharp.

"Killing Me Softly" (rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use) is a solid wiseguy thriller with a fascinating insiders' view of how the mob runs its business and pursues the all American dream of capitalism.

Companion viewing: "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "Goodfellas," "The Godfather," "Murder, Inc."

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