Yak, yak, yak—whack! On Killing Them Softly's source novel


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Scott McNairy as Frankie
  • Scott McNairy as Frankie
You'll need to get a move on if you want to see Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik's follow-up to their well-regarded western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2006). The new movie opened on Friday and, according to the mighty Box Office Mojo, "bombed with just $6.8 million, which is one of Brad Pitt's worst openings ever. . . . The movie received a terrible 'F' CinemaScore, and should fade from theaters very quickly in the next few weeks." That isn't much of a surprise, actually, given the disparity between the rascally, fast-moving film promised by the trailers and TV commercials and the one Dominik actually made—a melancholy marathon of one-on-one conversations punctuated by brutal, unnervingly visceral beatings and executions.

Killing Them Softly may not have provided first-nighters with the cuff-shooting, Ocean's Eleven joyride they were expecting, but its low-rent dialogue scenes are pretty faithful to the George V. Higgins novel on which it's based, originally published in 1974 as Cogan's Trade. Higgins earned a law degree from Boston College and spent seven years fighting organized crime, lastly as an assistant attorney general for the state of Massachusetts, before he went into private practice in 1973. By that time he'd aleady published his first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which launched Robert Mitchum on a comeback of sorts when he played the title character onscreen. Cogan's Trade was Higgins's third novel, and by that time he'd already mastered the obscure plotting and meticulously rendered goonspeak that would become his stock-in-trade.

Richard Jenkins as the driver
  • Richard Jenkins as the driver
Higgins isn't the sort of writer who provides a lot of hand-holding; I had to read the opening chapter two or three times before I began to get a handle on what was going on. Johnny Amato, a small businessman and ex-con, is trying to get Frankie, who served prison time with him on a previous job, to recruit a reliable partner for an unspecified heist. The conversation, however, consists mostly of him and the new recruit, a loudmouth named Russell, trying to break Johnny's balls, and Johnny trying to persuade Frankie to find someone better. Higgins is a master of the comma as ellipsis; you'd go crazy trying to outline the sentences coming out of his characters' mouths, but the rhythm of their speech is unimpeachable. Here's Russell telling Johnny about his experiences working a mine:

"Then I start looking at them other guys. . . . I see them, I was still thinking, and they're all, most of them, at least're smoking. And them guys that're doing the grass, you know? Very heavy on it, and they slow down some. I was, I was keeping track of things. I could see it happening to me, it was happening to them, I got it a little bit and I begin to see, that's what, them other guys, they started on it, it was probably just a little bit for them, too, when they start. You start forgetting things. All you want, you don't care about things, you know? Very funny thing."

Brad Pitt as Jackie
  • Brad Pitt as Jackie
Very funny indeed. Eventually the two goons manage to pull together the job: armed and masked, they rip off $50,000 from a mob-protected card game. Normally this sort of job would wind up with the culprits being hunted down and killed, but there's a wrinkle: a few years earlier, the middleman running the game, name of Markie Trattman (sorry, the syntax is contagious), pulled an identical heist of the very game he was supposed to be handling, and though he was never punished, his secret has gotten out. According to Johnny this is the perfect setup: they can hit the card game and Trattman will be blamed for it.

Higgins set his story in Boston in the early 70s, but Pitt and Dominik set theirs in Louisiana during the 2008 presidential campaign and financial collapse (George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama all appear on TV screens, providing an ironic and completely unnecessary political angle). Other than that, though, they've preserved the grimy, philosophical discussions from the book. There's a fine assortment of two-character scenes: between Jackie Cogan (Pitt), the freelance hit man called in to clean up after the second robbery, and his gray, prosaic mob contact, referred to only as the driver (Richard Jenkins), or between Jackie and Mickey (James Gandolfini), another hired assassin who's drinking and whoring himself into a stupor. And just when you think the movie is going to be submerged in a sea of talk, someone gets beaten so hard or shot in the head at such close range that the impact pushes you back in your seat. That's essentially the reverse of a crowd-pleasing heist flick, in which neither the words nor the bullets penetrate.


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