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Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

I try as hard as I can to eschew let's get right to the point: you can't make an exciting movie out of a boring book. Period. There it is. It's hard for me to say that, considering George V. Higgins (author of the book Cogan's Trade that became this essentially snooze-worthy film) wrote one of my all time favorite books and perhaps the greatest crime novel in history: The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

It's not that it's a patently bad film, it's just that hardly anything happens. In a crime/action movie...that's bad. But there's a corollary to that rule: if nothing's going to happen, at least there has to be fast, snappy, funny dialogue. Tarantino is a master of this...see Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction for dialogue 101...but incidentally there's also a lot of action in those films so maybe that's a bad example.

In this film there are, quite simply, just too many scenes of people sitting around talking. And the dialogue isn't even that good. It all goes back to the book, Cogan's Trade. I read about half of it in the weeks before watching the film, and found it almost as coma-inducing as certain parts of the film. hurts me to have to say that. But unless you're a SERIOUS GVH fan, I can't imagine you felt any other way.

There are some brightspots to the film:

1.) Brad Pitt's brutally and comically honest Jackie Cogan, a hitman forced to negotiate the bureaucracy of the mafia organization he works for. The organization is embodied in the film solely by Richard Jenkins...who, incidentally, is just incredible in any role he plays (remember the father on Step Brothers? That's him.)

2.) The disgustingly-bizarro yet mesmerizing scene in which Ray Liotta's character gets beat up. Odd, stylized camera work, intense sound, some was one of those moments that makes you sick but you can't turn your eyes away from it.

3.) Brad Pitt's little soliloquy at the end, including [sic]..."Thomas Jefferson was a rich wine snob who didn't want to pay his taxes to the British...America isn't a country, it's a business...PAY ME."

Speaking of money...the film was over-burdened by a lot of financial crisis talk from 2008, when the film is (very obviously) set. It opens with a scene that seems astoundingly pro-Conservative...with a bummy looking dude walking in an urban wasteland (concrete, dilapidated buildings, trash blowing everywhere, you get it...) with a voice-over of a speech by then-candidate Barack Obama, using a lot of his classic buzzwords like Hope, Change, and the like. When I walked into the theater (late), I almost thought I was watching an anti-Obama documentary, which didn't set me up well for the rest of the film.

The financial crisis stuff is pretty-much front-loaded in the film. In almost every one of the early scenes there is another news report on the radio--one time its G.W. Bush, one time it's Hank Paulson, one time it's Obama again--all offering what seem now like very paltry consolations about what was a daily unfolding of one of the worst financial tornadoes to hit the country in 100 years.

Like with a lot of big budget films that try to delve into politics (see this summer's Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises) the director seems to really WANT to make a point, but either doesn't have the time or doesn't develop it properly, or doesn't actually KNOW what point he's trying to make. Anyway, I do find it refreshing to see politics seeping in--gradually--to film, even if the messages are half-baked. I think it represents a good development for Hollywood (film historians (assuming anyone is reading) may say "Yes, but that's been going on for a while." Sure, but it's still nice to see major big-budget actions films even attempting to address such themes).

Conclusion: The dialogue does actually yield a few good laughs. It's fun to watch Brad Pitt on screen, as always, and Richard Jenkins is perfect as the mid-level corporate gangster. And, given some thought, you might even come away with some kind of takeaway regarding our financial system and our country in general...but nothing you couldn't come up with from some other source. Serious crime film and/or Pitt fans will want to see this. Otherwise, it's probably not worth it. Sorry GVH. 


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