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Cynical Killing Them Softly Critiques Capitalism

Cynical <i>Killing Them Softly</i> Critiques Capitalism

DVD Release Date: March 26, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: November 30, 2012 (limited)
Rating: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 97 min.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Actors: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola, Sam Shepard

If Killing Them Softly seems familiar, that’s because we’ve seen this story before—low-life criminals in a plot about a hit job gone bad. It’s one of those banter-fueled stories that rises and falls on the strength of its actors’ ability to inject life into the film’s rapid-fire dialogue. But, as with other films of this ilk, Killing Them Softly subjects its viewers to lawless behavior and a boatload of casual profanity, much of it designed to make you laugh.

What separates Killing Them Softly from the pack is its running critique of the American economic system. Set during the economic collapse of 2008, the story includes sound bites from President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama about the state of the faltering U.S. economy, and it cynically suggests that the American way of life leaves its citizens without any safety net. Left to fend for ourselves, Killing Me Softly suggests, who among us mightn't end up engaging in the same activities as the film’s main characters?

A young criminal, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and his Aussie partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are enlisted to rob a mob-run card game overseen by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The thieves are led to believe that the participants will suspect Trattman—who once confessed to pulling off a similar scheme—is behind the latest robbery, leaving the guilty pair no fear of payback.

But the mob has other ideas, and call in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to figure out what happened, and to make sure it never happens again. Cogan investigates the crime with a trusted but increasingly erratic friend (James Gandolfini), while spending significant time traveling in a car with a business associate (Richard Jenkins) in whom he confides.

Director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has adapted George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade (changing the setting to 2008) and peopled it with great character actors like Gandolfini and Jenkins. But in the service of what? The story is not without some amusing moments, but a story about bumbling criminals trying to earn a buck has been done better.

What sets Killing Them Softly apart is Dominik’s use of political sound bites to make a statement about the failings of American capitalism. Politicians from both parties are seen and heard offering reassuring words in the face of collapse. Rather than demonize one party or prop up any one politician, Dominik lets the sound bites play against the backdrop of the film’s action, suggesting that the speeches are hollow and meaningless to people who need to make money.

Cogan believes that the only way to get ahead is to rely on ourselves. Self-reliance can be a good thing, but for Cogan, it’s a cold calculation: Do what you have to do to get by because no one else is going to look out for your interests. "I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own," he says.

When another character tells Cogan, “You are a cynical ba-tard,” it’s hard to disagree.

Dominik does create some memorably visceral moments in Killing Them Softly, but you could be forgiven if ultra-stylized bullets to the head and brutal, bone-crunching physical beatings aren’t the kind of cinematic memories you’re looking to preserve.

If you’re looking for something lighter or more meaningful at the movies, take heart. It’s the holiday movie season, after all. Pretty much any other movie now playing qualifies, and will likely be more uplifting than Killing Them Softly.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain repeatedly; constant foul language, including relentless use of the “f”-word; middle finger extended; gay slur; a rape joke
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of drinking; one character is questioned repeatedly about his constant drinking; some smoking and drug use, including an extended scene from a drug user’s perspective and depiction of shooting up; man aspires to be a drug dealer
  • Sex/Nudity: Prostitution discussed, with hookers being paid and verbally demeaned; bestiality jokes; reference to gay sex in prison
  • Violence/Crime: Hit men carry out beatings and executions, some of which are depicted in close-up, some in slow-motion, with lots of blood splattering, pooling, etc.; car explodes and hits a man nearby; vomiting of blood; dog-snatching; physical beating
  • Religion: Audio of a man reading from the book of Revelation; brief reference to Jewish prostitutes

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Publication date: November 30, 2012