James Gandolfini is the rotted-out heart of Killing Them Softly

James Gandolfini is the rotted-out heart of Killing Them Softly

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of looking to the multiplex for inspiration, we honor James Gandolfini by singling out our favorite of the late actor’s performances.

Killing Them Softly (2012)
Taking a cursory scan of the user comments on Killing Them Softly’s IMDB page (where, fascinatingly, the most common rating is either one star or 10) reveals a common gripe that keeps reappearing: James Gandolfini’s character—who appears about halfway through the film, has two big scenes, then vanishes—is “pointless” and has “no relevance to the storyline.” While it’s true Gandolfini’s depressed alcoholic hitman doesn’t do much to advance the narrative, he couldn’t be more relevant to the film’s recession-era thematic trajectory. Indeed, Gandolfini is so magnificently embittered and entitled here that he’s essentially the rotted-out heart of the picture.

A super-cynical crime caper that doubles as a blatant (sometimes too blatant) critique of American capitalism, Killing Them Softly divided critics and scared off audiences last November, but it captures the mood of the times better than just about any other film. (Just wait: Its reputation will improve.) Adapted by writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade (which was written in the Nixon era), it’s about a card game stick-up that destabilizes an entire underworld economy. All of the crooked characters, including Brad Pitt’s ruthlessly pragmatic mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, could just as well be day-traders or hedge-fund managers, and they’re all either running scared or deep in the doldrums. But no one’s more despondent than Gandolfini’s Mickey: He’s so preoccupied with his crumbling marriage and an impending prison term that he can’t even get it together to do a simple hit for Cogan. 

In the first of his two scenes, Gandolfini sits in a New Orleans restaurant with Pitt knocking back alarming quantities of alcohol and bemoaning the many ways his life has turned to shit. He’s a stand-in for all those midlevel Wall Street guys who had the bottom fall out during the recession, and his seesawing displays of self-pity and resignation are mesmerizing. Physically, Gandolfini has always suggested a man of huge, lusty appetites, and here he reveals just how ugly things can get when those appetites are stymied—how a big man can turn small when life doesn’t go his way. Later, when Cogan goes to Mickey’s hotel and finds him too drunk to do the hit, Gandolfini seems to have shrunk even further. “I can’t go out tonight,” he admits after more raging and ranting, and his embarrassment at his own uselessness gets to you. His uselessness, it turns out, is precisely the point of the character, and there’s something chilling about the way he exits the narrative: alone and pickled in a dirty bathrobe, too broken even to play a part.