Cogan’s Trade-Off

I just finished George V. Higgins’ breakout novel, Cogan’s Trade (1974), which was excellent—a bare-bones story of crime and street justice, told efficiently and dispassionately. It’s also one of the few books that truly nails extensive slang and regional dialect. It was good.

Upon finishing, I went back and took a look at Killing Them Softly, a movie written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the book. It’s got some incredible talent, too: Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, the book’s titular hitman; Scoot McNairy, a personal favorite, and Ben Mendelsohn, as two small-time hoods; Ray Liotta as an affable criminal whose luck catches up to him; the droll Richard Jenkins as organized crime’s middle management; Vincent Curatola, aka Johnny Sack from The Sopranos as a plotting felon; and James Gandolfini in a masterful turn as a booze-besotted hitman, whoring and fumbling his way into the twilight of his career.

It’s a good movie. But it’s interesting to look at the trade-offs made. Let me start by saying The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of my favorite movies of all time—Dominik also wrote and directed that. And Killing Them Softly is similarly visually striking, a well-directed film. However, it’s interesting what we value in the movies. There’s a scene where Pitt’s character talks Scoot McNairy’s into a corner the first time they meet, revealing to him the harsh reality of the small timer’s position: he’s gonna give up his co-conspirator, or he is most surely gonna die. On the page, it’s much more detailed, a conversation subtly unwinding with sparse statements, circular tales of crime and invocations of common acquaintances that eventually spirals in on a distinct moment of choice. It’s better. Yet watching Scoot McNairy slowly move from annoyance, to puzzlement, to concern, then disbelief, and then completely lose any semblance of composure, practically weeping at the end, is sickeningly engaging. Not to mention fantastic acting.

Similarly, the violence, of which there is plenty, is kicked up a bit by the visual medium. It’s described in terse, to the point prose in Higgins’ novel, but the visuals of the movie add quite a bit. And sometimes too much. Watching Liotta’s Trattman get the everliving shit kicked out of him in the rain is shocking, with violent camerawork that mirrors the action. It hurts to watch. Yet when Trattman’s luck runs out later in the film, gunned down at a stoplight, the balletic slow motion of his demise is a little too indulgent—sure, it gives the audience plenty of time to consider the injustice of it all, but c’mon. Enough is enough. And to add in a truck t-boning the car as it rolls into the intersection is too much. Really. The killing of Amato pulls off a decent balance—slow-boiling tension shotgun-blasted away in a fraction of a second. The departure from the source material is worth it as Dominik deploys a fantastic over-the-shoulder shot of Pitt’s character approaching his wounded prey, now hidden, as the silence rushes into the void left by the thunderous gunshot, and then is creepily broken by the wet, bloody coughs of the dying man. It’s intense, and something that can only be accomplished in film.

There are some incongruities that don’t stand up, though. Ben Mendelsohn is a great actor. I can’t wait to see Slow West. But dammit, I don’t get why they cast that part as an Australian. It makes no sense, they don’t bother hanging a lampshade on it, and it detracts from the general suspension of disbelief: I can believe Brad Pitt is a rawboned contract killer, but I can’t believe there’s some heroin-addict, dog-stealing Australian con shambling around Boston. Sorry.

Also, the Obama narrative—throughout the film, there’s a lot of “change” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” slash “American Dream” talk playing in the background—the movie is set against the 2008 election. Sure, it’s an interesting counterpoint: the audacity of hope vs. the hopelessness of the criminal underclass. But it feels shoehorned, obvious. It hits you over the head with the metaphor, and Jenkins’ lawyer mentioning “recession prices” feels like piling on. The latter would’ve played just fine if not for the former. Not to mention the milieu of the whole thing is bombed-out enough to give a pretty good idea of the dire straits everyone is in.

And then there’s the whole cloth invention. I get it, you can’t transcribe a book word for word into a screenplay. That doesn’t work. But there are two points that stick out, more obviously if you’ve read the book, but still against the characterization of Cogan even if you’re just watching the movie. There’s the scene where he describes how a hit goes, and that he likes to “kill them softly,” that he doesn’t like feelings. Sure, I guess, but couldn’t we infer his dispassion from the way he talks? That he doesn’t even bother spelling it out, ’cause it’s not in his worldview? Maybe. It’s a little too confessional. But you gotta get a title somewhere, I guess.

The second one interests me more, because it ends the movie and is alternately “meh” and surprisingly poignant. When discussing, along with payment for the killings, the sate of America, a conversation based upon Obama’s second inaugural address playing prominently on the TV, Cogan goes on a little history lesson about Thomas Jefferson’s predilection for slave mistresses and the hypocrisy inherent in his political beliefs. It’s a good point, but again, doesn’t seem to be the thing he’d care about. Or if he thought that much about it about it, he wouldn’t share it with this guy. But the lines that round out monologue are great: “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” Cut to black. Not bad.

Both are definitely worth your time. Read the book. Watch the movie. They’re both enjoyable entertainments and I don’t mean to pick apart the latter too much. It’s just interesting the way things are adapted, the trade-offs that are made. How things that require a visual medium to express work, and add to the story, while changes to dialogue and substitutions outside the realm of what we see often detract.

For my money, if we’re really looking at such things, the best adjustment is made in currency. The money is updated. The price of a prostitute in the book is reported through a bit of dialogue as $25: “There’s a hundred and seventy-three bucks in that [wallet]. When I get up I wanna find a hundred and forty-eight, got that?” says Gandolfini’s character. In the movie, the line is the same, but the amounts change to $283 and $183. Similarly, at the end of the book, Cogan is paid $15,000 for three hits— he wants $10k each—while in the movie, he’s paid $30,000 for all three, and really wants $45,000. Damn inflation.

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