Killing Them Softly: How A Screenwriter Murdered His Own Protagonist

Killing Them Softly: How A Screenwriter Murdered His Own Protagonist

Character Analysis by Jamie Wynen

Andrew Dominik’s (The Assassination of Jesse James, Chopper)  latest film is an adaptation of the novel 1973 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, starring Brad Pitt as the excitingly dangerous Jackie Cogan, Animal Kingdom veteran Ben Mendelsohn, and the implausibly named Scoot McNairy. No really, that’s his actual name. It sounds like the punch line in a dirty limerick, but you’ll recognize him from TV land (Bones, The Shield). Unfortunately, despite a variety of strong characters, the story has more cogs missing than a clock tossed into a minefield.

If you’ve got a powerful, flawed, empathetic protagonist, why would you introduce him well into the second act?

After two junkies stage a daring heist on the local crime syndicate, the crime lords decide to fix everything by the expedient method of wholesale murder. Pitt, looking as though he stepped off the set of Fight Club by way of a boutique leather fetish store, plays a professional hitman with an aversion to people begging for their lives, which is about as blatantly ironic as you can get. Yet Pitt creates a compelling, mysterious, and ultimately empathetic character that I wanted to see more of.

Which is the first problem with this script. If you’ve got a powerful, flawed, empathetic protagonist, why would you introduce him well into the second act? I spent the first thirty minutes thinking it was the trainwreck junkie Mendelsohn’s story, which is just bad writing when you’ve got Brad Pitt tearing through the city firing off twelve-gauge shotgun rounds and pithy one-liners like a homicidal Jerry Seinfeld. This is an extreme case of failing to enter the scene as late as possible – we’ve entered the entire film far too early, at the expense of a well fleshed-out third act.

But this amazing protagonist is still further mistreated – by which I mean he is indulged. Cogan has got everything under control, identifying problems and avoiding all conflict with smooth, masterful manipulation. When he does choose to step in and get his hands dirty, his strikes are surgical and precise, as calm and routine as a day at the office photocopying contracts. Sure, there’s more blood and teeth lying around afterwards, but Cogan is never challenged, never given the stimulus to grow. He never leaves his ordinary world. Not once did I feel like Cogan was in danger. The character would’ve been so strongly improved by the addition of just one powerful confrontation at the climax. Instead, he gets his way, almost every time.

The strongest major conflict in the film never comes to a head, and is resolved offscreen.

Obstacles, instead of being presented through powerful visual metaphor, are delivered via dialogue. A spokesperson for the crime syndicate blandly mumbles his way through exchanges that should have been burning with tension. The strongest major conflict in the film – a potential challenge from another assassin – never comes to a head, and is resolved offscreen. We only find out through dialogue. This is the kind of epic, tense clash of titans that cinema was meant for! Instead we’re watching characters sit in cars and tell us about it. Cinema is a visual medium, with dialogue functioning best when giving action contrast, context and reinforcement. When vital conflicts are occurring in quiet, bloodless conversation, your audience is going to drift off and miss it.

But how can obstacles be important if there’s no reason to overcome them? Cogan doesn’t seem to want anything, except to kill a bunch of guys for money. That’s not compelling, because there are no stakes. The only people with stakes are his prey, the soon-to-be-corpses who exhibit the understandable but ultimately futile wish to keep their blood inside their bodies. By contrast, what has Cogan got to lose? What has he got to gain? What makes us side with him? All he has to gain is money, which is fine as an intermediate goal but is pretty dull and uninteresting as a long-term desire.

Even the most realistic film is still a story being told…

Desire and need drives a film, and Cogan can’t supply those things because he doesn’t have a character arc. He’s not going anywhere except murder town. Though Cogan shows flashes of a human soul beneath the calculating murder-robot façade, it’s never expanded on, and that’s garment-rendingly frustrating.

Having said all that, I actually loved Killing Them Softly. The world is rich, devastated, and tragically beautiful. The characters are nuanced and well-directed, the fighting shockingly visceral to behold. This is a dark film, with aspirations of grittiness, realism, and the experience of living with despair. But even the most realistic film is still a story being told, and whatever cinema magic is to be found in this film didn’t come from the script.

Killing Them Softly is out 11 Oct 2011.

-Jamie Wynen

3 thoughts on “Killing Them Softly: How A Screenwriter Murdered His Own Protagonist”

  1. You may know proper story structure, but you seem to be missing a lot if the intended content. Your suggestions to improve the story would only turn it into something more comercial and formulaic. This movie, although nowhere near and subtle as its source material, is almost a scene for scene adaptation of Cohan’s Trade by George V Higgins — who is considered by many to have been the greatest crime author in american history.

  2. This is the review of a person who was not part of the intended audience. Killing Them Softly is a gem, and so is it’s source material.

    • Did you read the full review? Jamie was certainly part of the intended audience, as he says “Having said all that, I actually loved Killing Them Softly.”
      He was merely trying to understand why a film with such a high profile cast didn’t make more than $40m.
      And I think he hits the nail on the head.
      Clearly the two people responding to this review are fans of the source material. But books don’t matter one bit when you are making a movie (which Dominik has reminded us of again more recently).


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