There’s something special about crime fiction set in Boston. The city doesn’t have the stature that NYC or LA or even Chicago naturally enjoys, so hoods from the Hub always seem to push their chest out more and walk a little tougher (the same goes for their sports fans, some would argue). They never seem to have the resources enjoyed by the larger cities too, so there’s a real blue-collar feel to those who choose a life of crime in Boston. It’s almost like how some kids bitch about having to work at a fast food joint, kids from Charlestown will bitch about having to hold-up armored cars…because it’s all they know.
These dead-end kids have got something to prove, y’know? And then there’s the inescapable Catholic guilt drenching the streets from Hyde Park to Somerville. That shit’s unshakable.
Having lived nearby in Salem, MA for close to a decade, I’m strongly partial to Boston crime fiction. It’s been an obsession of mine for quite some time. I’ve consumed the works of George V. Higgins and his successor, the reigning king of Boston crime, Dennis Lehane. As far as films goes, it doesn’t get better than The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973 – based on the Higgins’ novel of the same name). Besides being the best Boston crime tale ever put to celluloid, it’s also one of the most unsentimental, grimmest movies of all time. It’s bleak portrayal of gun runners, bank robbers, and desperate men stands up today thanks to its raw, naturalistic dialogue and the incredible performances of the great Robert Mitchum and Steven Keats.
Now, 39 years later, another one of Higgins’ Boston crime classics has been adapted with Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (based on the novel 1974 Cogan’s Trade). * A lot of reviewers are saying that the film is set in New Orleans. Take a fucking hike. It was shot in Louisiana, but between the accents and geographic indicators like Somerville, it’s a Boston crime flick. Also, Slaine! *
The film follows the fallout from a hold-up at a card game in which several local heavies were relieved of several thousand dollars. This heist spins the local crime economy out of control and the district crime enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard) has to retaliate somehow. So he has his middle man Richard Jenkins hire mafia hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to snuff out those involved with the heist. Cogan requests the aid of another hitman named Mickey (James Gandolfini), who they have to fly in from NYC. Cogan’s also gotta find the two stick-up kids who held up the game, local boy Frank (Scoot McNairy) and Aussie implant Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
Dominik uses the botched crime economy in the film to reflect contemporary financial straits in the U.S. Shit’s bad for everybody, even greasy hoodlums and hitmen. Dominik sort of beats us over the head with this idea. In every bar, in every car there’s a news broadcast concerning the 2008 Obama-McCain election or debate. The film climaxes during election night. There’s nothing subtle about it – the message is repeated over and over with no attempt at nuance. That’s my one complaint about the film so I wanted to get it out early.
Like Higgins’ source novel, the film is light on action but it’s the dialogue that drives the film. And holy crap does the film have some brilliant dialogue. There’s no snappy witticisms or any “wrath of God” threats, just intelligent, economically subtle exchanges. For instance, when Cogan meets Frank for the first time, Frank says he doesn’t know him. To which Cogan replies “Very few guys know me.” That says everything you need to know about Pitt’s character right there.
Somehow, they managed to make Pitt look unattractive. His face looks like an old piece of bread. The heel, in fact. Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn takes the trophy for Most Vile Character though. His Russell characters is a junkie who abhors showers. You can smell the filth and oily hair through the screen. It’s fucking marvelous. Gandolfini does his usual loud breathing and nasally shouting, which works for me. Dude has one of the best voices in Hollywood for that kinda thing
Scoot McNairy takes the cake for his role as the desperate and naive stick-up kid Frank. His nasally cartoon voice rivals Gandolfini’s and his shifty eyes absolutely scream hopelessness. I feel like I know 20 guys like him and after watching his performance I wanted to go out and buy them all beers.
This is Dominik’s first film since 2007′s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (and only his third film ever, the first being 2000′s Chopper). James was one of the best films of 2007, second only in my book to Ben & Casey Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (based on the Dennis Lehane Boston crime novel, what a coincidence!). Jesse James was drowning in stunning photography and thoughtful passages about obsession and death. Killing Them Softly is much lighter on the stylization, but it has its moments of creative slo-mo and drug-induced effects. There’s really no room for beauty in these godforsaken neighborhoods, anyway.
Dominik’s lack of flash lends itself well to crime films. Violence is ugly and Dominik lets it wash over us plenty of times in Killing. For instance, the card game robbery is shown in ass-clenching real time. Also, one of Cogan’s hits is shown in real time and it’s positively awful to witness. Besides shaving these violent moments of all their glamor, it also heightens the suspense…something you won’t find in one of those obnoxious Guy Ritchie or Bourne capers. There are moments of stylized violence, but I think they’re meant to be more disorientating than “cool looking.” Ray Liotta getting the shit kicked out of him is shot like someone getting the shit kicked out of them would film it.
The film ends exactly when it should and does so with one of the greatest closing lines in film history. No kidding, it manages to sum up all of the background politics heard throughout the film in one brief, portable “fuck you” kiss-off. To rewind a bit (because I’m so goddamn excited about this movie) I also wanted to add it has the best opening credits of the year and the only woman in the movie is a hooker. Take away from that what you want.
In the tradition of the great, grim Boston crime films, Killing is one of the bleakest. Its recession backdrop, as heavy-handed as it is, sort of makes the film more enjoyable. It’s like a Mickey Spillane novel – no bullshit symbolism or pussyfooting. Just shotgun head shots and kicks to the nuts by desperate men in leather jackets. It manages to find the perfect balance between reviling the characters it presents and being entertained as hell by them as they shove their way through the dark, moral chaos we all face at some point.
North Shore, FTW. Go Sawx.- Patrick Cooper