Why is it that everything needs a “deeper meaning?" Everything has to be “about something?" Why things can’t just be things?
Killing Them Softly is a movie that reminds me of that scene in Contact where the scientists decide to rig a chair inside the spaceship they were building even though it wasn’t in the original blueprint they were working from, and the chair ends up almost killing the Jodie Foster character. In this case, they picked a story that stands perfectly well on its own, transferred it almost word-for-word to the screen, but crammed some extraneous shit in there to make a half-baked point about the 2008 recession, and it just gets in the way. Like those guys who claim that Horton Hears a Who is all about abortion or who think Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World is a patriotic song, they hijacked someone else’s work to blithely advertise their own agenda at the expense of the overall quality of the thing.
The film is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade, by George V. Higgins (written in the 1970s, which the mathletes at home might have noticed happened far before the 2008 recession), and the plot is exactly the same: Two small-time hoods are summoned by a medium-time hood to pull a robbery on a big-time hoods’ poker game. The suspicion falls on the game’s host, Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta), who was known to have robbed his own game a couple years back. In order to sort the shit out, the big crime bosses hire Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), an efficient free-lance enforcer.
There are three major points of departure from the source material: One, it’s set during the 2008 presidential election. Two, it’s peppered with boring-ass speeches by George Bush and Barack Obama going on in the background. And three, it happens in New Orleans, instead of Boston. Only that last one is a fucking lie. I speculated in an earlier piece that the New England accent used by the characters is actually the “Y’at” dialect of the inner Big Easy – sometimes even called “Brooklinese” — but that doesn’t explain why at one point a New York-based mobster who travels to meet Jackie Cogan says that he wasn’t supposed to be “up here.” Up? Since when is New Orleans “up” from New York? Sure, if you travel North long enough you may end up there, if you aren’t eaten by a polar bear first, but I don’t think that’s what the character had in mind.
They even keep the author’s original penchant for enormous uninterrupted soliloquies between the characters, which makes them perhaps the best listeners to ever grace the silver screen. It’s such a faithful adaptation that I wonder how the people who hadn’t read the book felt when watching it, because the narrative is entirely literary and episodic, since the novel definitely was not a cinematic work.
The change in time period is pretty much irrelevant, and only exists to support the director’s theories on how the housing bubble and banking collapse happened due to the supposed deregulation of the American economy — which is ironic because Andrew Dominik, the director, is a Kiwi, and New Zealand, according to the Heritage Foundation's Index of economic freedom, has the fourth freest economy in the entire world and is doing better right now than the U.S., which has been bumped down to 10th place and heading south. So that’s like Steve Jobs complaining about how the Zune is killing the industry.
All the good bits are what was kept intact from the book, so that makes it a movie that is 90% excellent and 10% utterly moronic. The only piece of dialogue not lifted directly from Higgins’ work is the very last one, and it stands out like Manute Bol in the middle of Tokyo. It’s shoehorned in there in order to wrap up the message being conveyed and it’s just as subtle and organic as those He-Man moral lesson sketches that came after every episode ended.
“So, Orko, what have you learned today?”
“I learned that we should always tell someone where we’re going before we go out of the house, and that capitalism isolates men from the society around them and strands them in an eternal island of bitter loneliness.”
Granted, I’m not the sort of militant guy who gets turned off by any movie that spouses a philosophy I don’t agree with. If I was, I probably wouldn’t like any movies at all. Hell, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Host (Gwoemul), and that is such a pinko piece of entertainment that it was one of the only South Korean films allowed in North Korea.
The problem I have is when the subtext is bogging the entire thing down just to be there. If the director had really adapted the novel, you know, modeled it to fit his purposes, that might have worked, but as it stands it’s like a third wheel spinning in the opposite direction of the other four.
So the moviegoer will do better to stay at home and read the book.
Still, it’s a very beautiful movie with nice acting and cool camera work. If you prefer to experience the film version instead, you won’t be completely disappointed, just remember to have your middle finger ready to flip-off the director every time he makes a heavy-handed remark about U.S.-style capitalism.