George V. Higgins’s 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade is the Kiss of the Spider Woman of 70s Boston crime novels, structured essentially as a series of conversations between various criminals and lowlifes, seemingly unedited for clarity or concision. The characters in Cogan’s Trade repeat themselves, speak in circles, hastily change the objects and subjects of sentences in mid-stream, and fill the gaps with placeholder verbiage -- in other words, they talk like real people, rather than actors in a film or characters in a book. This, along with their penchant for sometimes impenetrable underworld slang, gives the book a hypnotic readability and made adapting it for the screen a unique challenge, a challenge that eventually resulted in 2012’s controversial and underrated Killing Them Softly.
Reading Cogan’s Trade for the first time several years after seeing the movie version, I kept picturing it as a Coen brothers movie. The basic plot, about a seemingly simple crime that ends up dominoing into a cascade of increasingly violent calamities, is one that the Coens would use again and again, and their penchant for ultra-stylized dialogue (with not a pause or stutter out of place in the jump from page to screen) would have made them an obvious fit for the material, maybe too obvious for them to have ever been interested in it. Instead, it was chosen by Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt as their followup to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and if it shares anything with the earlier film it’s a sense of quiet conversation punctuated by loud, startling bursts of violence.
Killing Them Softly makes an interesting companion piece with Jesse James in other ways too. The Dominik who chronicled the myths and countermyths of the old west seemed to be transmitting from another era in the earlier film, but with Killing Them Softly he seems mildly unnerved by the rhythms and language of the modern world. Released in 2012 but set a few years earlier during the 2008 financial crisis and presidential election, the film incorporates political speechifying from Presidents Bush and Obama as well as candidate John McCain, turning a capitalist critique subtext that’s found in virtually any traditional crime story into text in markedly loud, abrasive fashion. Dominik’s use of modern popular music feels a little out-of-joint too: we watch two people shoot heroin to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and hear Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” the first time Pitt’s Jackie Cogan comes around. Like the film’s political content, these too-clever-by-half musical cues get a lot of ire from audiences, but there’s a discordance to them that seems in line with this skewed version of a story we’ve seen and read countless times but witness now from a slightly different angle: the music is as obvious as a political slogan, and almost as meaningless.
Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer who in a typical crime novel would likely be the antagonist rather than the title character. Reading the novel, he (to make another Coen connection) reminded me of a more personable Anton Chigurh, the character created by Cormac McCarthy and later immortalized by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Cogan and Chigurh are both violent men who seem to recognize the inherent cruelty of the worlds they live in, and act as personifications of fate for characters unlucky enough to find themselves at cross-purposes with them.
A surprising portion of Higgins’s dialogue and structure is retained for the movie version, and the film’s cast (which has grown only more impressive in the ensuing nearly ten years and includes Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Sheppard, and James Gandolfini) make meals from its slangy digressions and casual insults. That includes, somewhat bafflingly, references to local Boston suburbs and other locales, despite the fact that the film was shot in New Orleans, another dissonant note that makes the film’s setting feel almost like a floating fictional urban realm like Gotham City or Ed McBain’s Isola, familiar but parallel to our own world, even as politically and economically it seems to operate more or less the same.
The moral universe of both Cogan’s Trade and Killing Them Softly is so bleak and merciless that it’s really no wonder the movie failed to catch on with a mass audience. Liotta is truly pitiful as Markie Trattman, a crime boss who made the mistake of robbing his own card game a few years previously, which means he has to take the heat when it happens again, even though everyone knows he had nothing to do with it. In most versions of stories like this, Pitt’s Jackie Cogan would be the relatively noble antihero up against more violent and craven criminals we can at least feel a little good about seeing dispatched (think: Richard Stark’s Parker or his myriad screen incarnations), but Cogan is in fact the man who insists that the innocent have to suffer along with the guilty in order to keep the delicate economic structure enjoyed by himself and his bosses from collapsing.
When Killing Them Softly was released, a lot of viewers were turned off by what they perceived to be the film’s strident, unsubtle political content, but seen through modern (and, possibly, more radical) eyes, its cynicism about mainstream politics in America feels authentic and ahead of its time, never more so than in Pitt’s climactic closing speech, one of the few stretches of dialogue in the film that was altered significantly from the novel:
“My friend, Jefferson's an American saint because he wrote the words, ‘All men are created equal.’ Words he clearly didn't believe, since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He was a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble, and they went out and died for those words, while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy [Obama] wants to tell me we're living in a community. Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now fucking pay me.”
After that, the film cuts to black, and gives us one last incredibly obvious song choice for the road. If it doesn’t make you smile, this movie probably just isn’t for you, but, fittingly enough, it’s too late for you to do anything about it.