A juicy, bloody, grimy and profane crime drama that amply satisfies as a deep-dish genre piece, Killing Them Softly rather insistently also wants to be something more.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik, whose extraordinary Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford proved too long and arty for the masses, repositions George V. Higgins’ 1974 Boston mob-world novel as a metaphor for the ills of American capitalism circa 2008, a neatly provocative tact. But he also shamelessly shows off his directorial acumen; unlike the leading character, who’s all business, Dominik makes sure you notice all his moves. The movie is tight, absorbing and entertainingly performed by a virtually all-male cast topped by Brad Pitt.
A lawyer, professor and assistant U.S. Attorney who long investigated organized crime in addition to writing 27 novels, Higgins knew well of what he wrote. His first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was made into a fine film and his third, Cogan’s Trade, the basis of this one, consists of torrents of exceptionally vivid Beantown wiseguy dialogue with bits of plot tucked almost incidentally into the chatter.
Moving the action to decimated post-Katrina New Orleans without a tourist in sight, Dominik has done a keen, disciplined job of coaxing the plot out of the shadows while retaining the flavor of underclass lingo and attitude. With the background dominated by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s optimistic speeches stressing the availability of “the American promise” to all, some bottom-feeding criminals plot what looks like a no-risk scheme: Old-timer Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, the great Johnny Sak of The Sopranos) hires unwashed kids Frankie and Russell to raid the regular card night run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who once robbed his own game and got away with it.
While allowing these low-enders to emerge in all their miserable glory, Dominik also adds his own flourishes right from the outset, from striking lateral camera moves to amusingly supplying one of the young hoods a pathetic little dog. Despite their general ineptitude, the boys pull off the job, but this is bad news for Markie, as it’s going to be assumed he’s run the same scam a second time.
At least this is what is suspected by the unnamed and unseen corporate mob, which has cog-in-the-system “Driver” (Richard Jenkins) engage shrewd hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to deal with this disruption of business as usual. Needlessly, Markie gets horribly beat up, Cogan brings in another hired killer, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him with a double killing, and plenty more blood gets spilled before order is, after a fashion, restored.
Although the plot bases are dutifully, if briefly, covered, this is a crime story like so many others in which it doesn’t really matter if you can follow who everyone is and why awful things are happening to them; it’s basically a given that everyone on view is guilty of something, so you can’t feel too badly when they come to grisly ends.
What matter more are style and attitude, which Dominik ladles on like sauce on ribs. Russell’s drug-addled disorientation is represented by multiple distortions of time, visual perception and sound; the pursuit of one victim is imaginatively covered entirely from the outside of the building in which the chase is consummated; Cogan arrives on the scene to the accompaniment of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around;” the just-scraping-by 21st century hoods drive late-’60s/early-’70s cars like a Riviera and Toronado; and one man’s execution is rendered from many angles in a slow-motion explosion of breaking glass and penetrating bullets so elaborate and prolonged that it resembles a self-standing art installation.
The film is terribly smart in every respect, with ne’er-a-false note performances and superb craft work from top to bottom, but it never lets you forget it, from Pitt’s pithy excoriation of Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy right down to his “Crime is the business of America” final line that is bound to be widely quoted.
The film noir crime dramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s were about a palpable unease in the country, but this remained a subtext rather than the overt subject of the films. Here, Dominik explicitly articulates his intended meanings, which have to do with money, institutional rot and what happens when you don’t keep your economic house in order. Either approach is valid but, perhaps in this day and age, audiences need their messages to be quick and direct. Killing Them Softly delivers them that way.
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