Film Reviews

Sometimes, the only thing between a man and darkness is a big shotgun.

The Existential Hit Man

Intricate if uneven, the “post-modern” Killing Them Softly unravels a cynical world

America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now give me my fucking money,” orders hit man Cogan (Brad Pitt) in this newest crime drama (as opposed to melodrama). However, like last year’s superior Drive, this is no ordinary crime meller: It means to be a commentary on the way of the world, as fueled by gangster ethos and power dynamics, a bullet (in slow motion) being the coin of the realm. In subsequent scenes, bouts of violence play out accompanied by recorded statements of two politicos: Barack Obama and Bush II. Murder, drug-taking, money-laundering, illegal gambling and revenge then ensue, beautifully staged.

Crime novels turned into ambitious movies–nay, pretentious movies–are a feature of our new century. Gone are the knights-errant of Ross Macdonald. Here are the hit men of a new era–philosophizing as they splatter their prey. (And anyone who happens to get in the way.) Everyone is guilty of something anyway. Shoot randomly and you still kill the moral low-life, a world wherein everyone cheats everyone.

Now the professional crooks police their own kind. When illegal gambling kingpin Ray Liotta is robbed (twice . . . in a row) he eventually confesses to robbing his own operation himself. But then, when he is robbed by others, he must call in criminal-class enforcers, but since you can trust no one these days, he must keep tabs on them. This intricacy mushrooms: The milieu is a violent, bloody cesspool. And we see it all. As do the hit men, chief among them the aphorizing Cogan.

Three years ago, New Zealander director Andrew Dominik turned out the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a superb revisionist Western which sank without a trace at the box office. However, he was hailed a masterful new auteur. Now comes Killing, which is currently underperforming at a multiplex near you–this one from the George Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. Star Brad Pitt helped finance both beautifully staged movies. (Assassination is available on DVD.) Maybe today’s violence-loving moviegoers like their Westerns and crime sagas without annoying intricacies. Too bad. Dominik and Pitt make a powerful filmmaking duo.

Philosophically, the film in question here is scarcely reassuring. The world is nearly all criminal, it says, and so self-contained it can police itself effectively. Everyone dies, it posits, so does it really matter when? As long as you hire a hit, you can keep yourself upright, and take what the world can offer. Until . . .

Until then, stay alive. We want you to be in shape to tune in soon for the Weekly’s Best Movies of 2012, our no-holds-barred, highly opinionated and perhaps trustworthy compendium of cinematic bonbons.