A stick-up of a high-stakes mob card game triggers a crisis of confidence in the criminal underworld in Killing Them Softly. New Zealand-born Australian director Andrew Dominik’s followup to his well-regarded 2007 western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a stylish, brutal affair that delivers grim atmosphere and punishing violence but loses impact in telegraphing its political punches.
The movie is adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, by the late criminal lawyer and author George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle). The book is filled with lengthy stretches of flavourful wiseguy dialogue as Higgins explores the paradoxes of the honour-among-thieves code. Dominik has extracted some of that sharp lingo as well as the general plot of Higgins’s book in a smart vehicle for producer-star Brad Pitt, who plays smooth-operating mob middle manager Jackie Cogan.
Jackie’s job is to restore the syndicate’s shaky street cred while working with the gangland equivalent of an impotent bureaucracy. With the unnamed town’s top man on his death bed, the crime bosses are in the hands of an out-of-touch corporate-style committee that issues decisions through its mouthpiece lawyer (Richard Jenkins).
Pitt is solid as the cocksure pragmatist who prefers to kill victims “softly” from a distance rather than watching them get “touchy feely” up close. The sometimes too-colourful cast is led by James Gandolfini, resurrecting the spirit of Tony Soprano as a boozing, hooker-loving hit man who has lost his killer touch. The thugs include the fearful Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and the junkie Australian Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), both repeat losers who seem destined to fail before they start. They’re backed by a dry cleaner named Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), who insist it’s important that they act fast before “other smart guys” get the same idea.
It will be no surprise to fans of The Assassination of Jesse James that Dominik is arty, even indulgently stylish, in creating a world of nighttime illuminated with spots of painterly radiance, set in bars and cars and dark industrial suburbs (shot in New Orleans). The soundtrack is filled with anachronistic tunes, from country spirituals to Depression-era cheer. One scene – of Russell going in and out of consciousness while on heroin – is a standalone set piece of time-shifting, distorted imagery and sound.
Most of the film consists of long scenes of back-and-forth dialogue alternating with spasmodic scenes of ugly, hard-to-watch violence. Ray Liotta, the likeable guy who runs the poker game and is wrongly fingered for the heist, takes a particularly mean beating – every punch and kick hurts to hear. A slow-motion drive-by shooting offers a series of bullets, spraying glass and a Zapruder-style brain splash.
So much style, such cruelty … and what is the point again? Dominik’s message is hard to dodge in Killing Them Softly – that capitalism and crime are mirror images of the same immoral system (a point Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather made 40 years ago). There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the film these lowlifes can go without George Bush or John McCain or Barack Obama talking on the television about the need to bail out Wall Street or how everyone in America can participate in the country’s promise.
Jackie’s cynical declaration, on the night of Obama’s election, that “America isn’t a country, it’s a business” is meant to sting. By that point, it’s just a postscript on a familiar rant, less an example of killing us softly than subjecting us to strident overkill.