Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik returns to the subject of murder and the men who commit them with his gritty crime drama "Killing Them Softly."
He moves from the vast plains of the American West, which he patrolled in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," to the concrete and detritus of urban America. His gunman/wingman once again is Brad Pitt, who delivers an icy performance as a hired gun in this gutter-trawler based on George Higgins' 1974 novel, "Cogan's Trade."
The movie calls to mind ominous Scorsese heavies menacing with their fearless gravitas and quick-mouthed Tarantino featherweights exchanging verbal barbs in a slowly enclosing ring.
Dominik delivers a filthy realism as he treads the scummy waters of the underworld in an unnamed city that sounds a lot like Boston (where Higgins' novel is set) but looks like New Orleans. But the filmmaker loses his way when he tries to couch his crime drama in a greater philosophical message about greed and selfishness.
The film opens to the sounds of Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Obama says that the "American Promise" tells us that we have "the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect." This voiceover occurs as we see a gray landscape littered with swirling trash. Despite any lofty rhetoric, it is clear that there is no hope in this cinematic world.
Bootstrapping in "Killing Them Softly" amounts to choosing whom to rob, and consideration for others is the furthest thing from anyone's minds.
Low-level crime boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) has an idea for a quick score. He just needs two guys dumb enough or brave enough to execute the plan. A few years earlier, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) had robbed his own card game and then had the temerity to brag about it.
Amato figures the game can be knocked over again, and all of the blame and subsequent harm will land on Trattman. He employs Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a pasty and disheveled street thug who speaks with a nasally Boston accent, like Ratso Rizzo if he had fallen in with Will Hunting's Southie crew. Despite his concerns about his mate Russell's (Ben Mendelson) fitness, he brings along the Australian junkie for the score.
Dominik's camera follows closely behind this two-man gang that can't shoot straight as they fumble through a nerve-rattling heist. In the background of the robbery is audio of president George W. Bush talking about the anxieties brought on by the unstable financial climate. The scene offers another taste of the overwrought attempt to tie the micro-story of this underworld economic calamity to the greater financial disaster undermining American society.
Though the two fools get away from their ill-conceived incident without harm, the danger has just begun. The mobsters robbed in the game want answers. But they don't want to get their hands dirty. Enter Pitt's Jackie, a dispassionate and utterly professional hired gun. His voice is filtered through charcoal, and he carries himself with a calm confidence that makes others uneasy. Jackie prefers to kill criminals softly, meaning from a distance, to keep himself clean of blood and the feelings of his victims. Pitt is excellent, all menacing glares and measured exasperation.
Jackie receives his instructions from a buttoned-up mob counselor (Richard Jenkins) who carries a briefcase and wears a tie. Jenkins plays the corporate intermediary with a bone-dry wit, discussing crime and retribution like it's a spreadsheet presentation. But even this man, in his luxury Acura, decries the "total corporate mentality" of the drug bosses who employ him -- another heavy-handed pass at the movie's political and philosophical themes.
Jackie doesn't agree with the details of the plan but plays the good soldier. In order to keep personal feelings out of the matter and protect his anonymity, Jackie brings in Mickey (James Gandolfini), a ruthless killer from New Jersey, to take care of one of the hits.
Gandolfini's despicable Mickey is a beaten basset hound overstuffed with booze, regret, insecurity, jealousy and simmering rage who moves with the ease of a veteran offensive lineman. He has a filthy mouth, no regard for women and teeters desperately on the verge of self-destruction. Mickey may be meant to represent American gluttony and greed, but the subplot feels more like a major deviation from the thrust of the movie's narrative than any extended metaphor. But Gandolfini's performance is the best part of "Killing Them Softly." He disturbs and enthralls with such force that I wanted to see a separate movie that centers primarily on his character.
As Mickey unravels under the weight of his own demons, Jackie takes control of the situation and spends the third act of the movie delivering justice in the form of highly stylized violence that is both beautiful and deeply disturbing, rendered in slow-motion sprays of blood, glass and bullets.
"Killing Them Softly" wanders through ebony streets glistening with rain and tight spaces that feel claustrophobic with danger. Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser is familiar with dark places and sinister themes from his work with the excellent horror film "Let Me In," and his depiction of dread here heightens anticipation for his cinematography in Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming "Zero Dark Thirty."
Dominik captivates with his ability to build and then pierce the tension in this world of shadows and washed-out grays, but he pulls audiences out of the story with his sermonizing on the ethical and moral decay of capitalistic society.
The idea that a single decision to commit a robbery leads to a catastrophe engulfing anyone within gunshot range serves as a nice allegory, but it could be painted more subtly. If Dominik chose to use the economic collapse to contextualize his violent tale, it would be more palatable, but he constantly hits us over the head with his grand themes.
"Killing Them Softly" is great when it sticks to Dominik's genre stylings, but it spends too much energy trying to be a "message movie." By the time Jackie puts a cynical bow on things, the whole package feels a bit hollow.
Rating: R for strong violence, language, sexuality, drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
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