Despite being a prolific crime novelist, only two of George V Higgins’ books have made the transition to celluloid. This feels somewhat expected, yet surprising at the same time. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), the first Higgins adaptation to film, is an incredibly grim crime tale that was well received by critics but wasn’t received well by audiences at the time. The film grew in stature over the years, but its sour, unsympathetic tone has to match the right viewer. The second feature, Killing Them Softly, is terser, yet no less cynical. Killing Them Softly also garnered a solid critical consensus, while the audience gave it a CinemaScore rating of F. Both films are acquired tastes. Dealing with local crooks who inhabit quiet desperation, who are states away from the romanticised criminal world of The Godfather (1972). The interesting difference between the two is that with almost 40 years between the two Higgins adaptations, the cynicism has only gotten more expansive.
Adapted from Higgins’ book, Cogan’s Trade, and set against the 2008 financial crisis and the American presidential elections, the film tells the tale of three small-time crooks who plan to rob a mob-protected gambling ring. The completion of this activity leads the mob to send out two hitmen to seek out and eliminate the perps. Coming in five years after the epic revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), director Andrew Dominik threw a curve ball with his third fictional feature. Killing Them Softly, while still a period piece, was a remarkably trim film. Despite coming in over an hour shorter than its predecessor, the film is just as muscular in practice. It’s just a bit more athletic. Suddenly there’s a realisation that a film doesn’t need to be as lengthy as Heat (1995) to feel weighty.
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Such a load is placed on the film’s two scraggily delinquents Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), two men who don’t have the know-how or talent to stop their mob heist from going to the dogs. Their narrow-sighted greed and desperation blindsided them from the obvious factor that when the proverbial goes down, they may not hold the composure to deal with it. Amusingly, despite their grotty, dishevelled antics, their self-indulgence feels only two steps away from the excessive risk-taking from the financial institutions that helped cause the collapse in the year in which the film is set.
Throughout the film, TV screens are fixed on news reports. The constant droning about the economic situation piecing through the action on screen. To some, it might feel heavy-handed, but to this writer it’s the perfect environmental primer. Ignored by the people we follow as they navigate through dingy bars, nice hotels, and desolate stadiums yet the stately voices give off an ever-present dread that shadows the lives of these low-life thugs. President Obama’s hopeful promises should be the perfect foil for those lost during such strife. Instead, the words ring hollow when placed against the desolate garbage-strewn streets of post-Katrina America.
It’s interesting how the financial discord bleeds into the lived-in nature of Higgins’ crime universe. The organiser of the heist, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato’s (Vincent Curatola) disdain for Russell is shown early in the film, mentioning how he can get another Aussie for the job “as they’re ten a penny”. A remark that hints how American crime relies on the cheap labour of immigrants just as much as its legitimate economy. Richard Jenkins’ “Driver” character quips about the unnamed crime establishment he works for having a “corporate mentality”. The gangsters harbour the same cutthroat aggression here that they do in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But Jenkins’ driver character in his conversations with Brad Pitt’s Assassin Jackie Cogan also unknowingly shed light on how this criminal organisation mirrors the darkest parts of corrupted capitalism, with the lack of culpability and blame pushing to the forefront.
The film’s most entertaining character is also the saddest. James Gandolfini’s role as Micky, a has-been hitman sent to perform a hit on the thieves, becomes the living embodiment of what happens to workers trapped in a system which happily devours them at their peak. With his rudeness towards service staff, constant consumption, and reminiscing of sex workers he loved, he shows himself to be little more than a husk of the man he was. Spending three days getting ready for a hit he seems reluctant to perform, becoming what writer Glenn Kenny mentions about the character of Eddie Coyle in the Blu-ray extras as an old gangster who hasn’t got in him anymore. And yet there’s still a feeling that the system wishes them to still be the effective means of production they were before age and jail time wore them down.
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Within Killing Them Softly is a heavyweight roster of performers, all perfectly equipped for the job at hand. Gandolfini’s performance is superlative yet expected. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are genuinely great fun as the bickering crime duo who execute the robbery. The performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta could easily be considered mid-tier when framed with the body of their work, yet still have great subtle moments which remind me why I enjoy them as actors. Every performance folds well with the film’s distilled screenplay. And right now, looking back at the film, it feels more surprising to see such an eclectic group happily gorging themselves on such a taut but engaging script. The dialogue doesn’t pretend that it’s the way actual people talk. But much like how Glenn Kenny describes how The Friends of Eddie Coyle captures the realistic quirks of criminal and cop vernacular, the same approach is found here. And with the actors firing the way they do, it’s believable.
Whether or not everything mentioned here is found in the 70’s source is one thing. However, Dominik’s 2012 execution of the material is still fascinating ten years on. Eschewing the grand scale romanticising often seen in the much-talked-about films of powerhouses such as Scorsese and Coppola and focusing on the insular, small-time despair which has occupied a few of the distinctive filmmakers operating now. But what seems to set Killing Them Softly aside from its contemporaries is the blunt-edged way it displays itself about money, desperation and the sense that so much of the American experiment is fading. Three years after Killing Them Softly, Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) hit theatres. A film about the economic crisis which made a far bigger splash than Killing Them Softly ever did. And even with the delightful Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, it’s Killing Them Softly which I find myself often going back to. That’s some feat.
Killing Them Softly was released in the UK on 21st September 2012.