“Killing Them Softly” wants to be more than just some empty blood-and-grit gangster pic, not just alluding to the specificity of the 2008 economic recession, but hammering it into our heads like an anvil backfiring and dropping on Wile E. Coyote. Based on George V. Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Trade,” Kiwi writer-director Andrew Dominik’s crime thriller, his follow-up to 2007′s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” loads on the allegorical subtext to annoyingly heavy-handed effect. But, while it’s also a shade too self-indulgent, “Killing Them Softly” is strikingly shot, rawly violent, and blackly amusing as a genre piece.
Just as the financial collapse is upon us, the organized crime world is having its hard times, too. Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is in need of some quick cash, so Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) suckers him into robbing two briefcases of money from a poker game, run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Australian heroin addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) is hired to go in with Frankie, and the two hair-brained crooks get away with it (with yellow dishwashing gloves and sawed-off shotguns, no less). Markie organized a previous robbery at a game, but this time (which he didn’t mastermind), he’s going to be held responsible and punished anyway. Enter mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who prefers killing softly, to clean up the mess without any fuss.
It’s no coincidence that the film is set in the rough and tough world of crime-laden Boston, not unlike “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (also based on Higgins’ first novel). Greig Fraser’s lensing is seasonably gritty, with a few show-offy touches (a camera is mounted on the car door), and the town looks very stark, wet, and greasy. Each shot has obviously been given a good amount of thought by Dominik, from the very tense card-game heist, to one stylish drive-by sequence of a bullet shooting out of a gun barrel through a window and exploding into a skull in ultra-slow-motion, to the irony of cutting from a brutal beating/shooting to musical standards (i.e. “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”). There’s also the funniest car explosion you’ll ever see.
The film is deliberately paced, amounting to long stretches of Dominik taking on Quentin Tarantino’s ear for juicy, profanely amusing dialogue and just letting his characters be loquacious. Every once in a while, a scene will quietly erupt into a sudden act of violence, kind of like one in a Tarantino or Martin Scorsese joint. Despite the title, the violence here is not soft, but harsh and visceral. Not for the faint of heart, one scene features a character receiving a hard, bone-crunching beating in the rain, and we feel every punch and kick. “Killing Them Softly” has moments of brilliance, but slows its roll a bit too much with spare plotting and kills a lot of time with indulgent interactions and monologues.
The actors do no wrong, even if there’s very little to the characters. Pitt headlines the film, like he did with Dominik’s previous film as Jesse James, and effortlessly gives the dangerous Jackie a smooth coolness and smart cynicism, as well as star-quality charisma. McNairy and Mendelsohn make a perfectly blockheaded duo: the former portrays desperation and mounting anxiety like a pro, and the very sweaty, tweaked-out latter is given the showier part but he’s still terrific. Liotta, in his “Goodfellas” wheelhouse, is much more vulnerable here than the typical wiseguy he does so well. Richard Jenkins gets little ground to stand on (literally) as the middle-man attorney, credited as Driver, who hires Jackie, but he keeps up with Pitt in their car-meeting dialogue. Coming from a different angle than Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini does multilayered work as hit man Mickey, Jackie’s now-useless buddy, alternating between glazed, angry, depressed, and touchy-feely. He delivers some of the film’s best scenes, and they have the most feeling.
As already mentioned, the story is set during America’s economic collapse and wants to equate these mobsters to the backdrop, but we’re incessantly reminded through campaign billboards, TVs, radio, and dialogue over and over again. From the get-go, jarringly intercut between a well-done tracking shot and Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech, it’s reported that the economy is in the crapper. Then, during the card-game heist, we hear Bush talking about our “financial future” in the background. Finally, in the last scene, Pitt’s Jackie scoffs at Obama’s televised “Change” speech: “We’re one peopleâ€¦we’re all the same. We’re all equal.” “America’s not a country, it’s a business.” Everyone’s on his own, and Jackie just wants his friggin’ money. Who knew gunmen and low-lifes were just like us? Relevant point-making has never been less subtle, but at least it looks cool.
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B –