A routine, even mundane crime story relayed in tones of world-weary fatigue, “Killing Them Softly” deglams the mob movie to coolly distinctive if rarely pulse-quickening effect. Trading in pleasures of a deliberately rarefied sort, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s talky, character-rich genre piece largely short-circuits thrills to sketch a grimly funny portrait of thugs taking care of business, in every rotten sense of the word. Results are at once a bit pretentious and worth savoring by those who don’t mind a low-octane approach, spelling moderate B.O. for the fall Weinstein Co. release, though a well-cast Brad Pitt could enhance its prospects.
Though it runs a fleet 97 minutes and finds Dominik in a relatively light mood after the brooding dramatics of 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Killing Them Softly” is similarly a film about the complications and hesitations that precede the decision to murder a man. Like its predecessor, this confidently made picture is minutely attentive to process, marked by occasional arty flourishes, and in no hurry to get to the payoffs. No one really wants to hurt anyone in this battered, beleaguered world of disorganized crime, but it’s got to be done, and with as little expense as possible in these cash-strapped times.
Indeed, the picture cynically and over-insistently foregrounds the economic crisis throughout, updating the setting of George V. Higgins’ 1974 Boston-set novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” to Louisiana in the weeks preceding the 2008 presidential election. Lest one miss the tale’s topical import, TV screens and radios are continuously blaring speeches by President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama, full of false hope and lofty talk of choices and consequences, repeatedly suggesting that the era’s financial gloom and air of general malaise have trickled down even to America’s scuzziest back alleys.
It begins with the setup for a particularly pathetic crime, as pudgy midlevel crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) taps ratty up-and-comer Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to rob a card game run by mob hustler Markie (Ray Liotta). To Johnny’s chagrin, Frankie foolishly chooses perpetually strung-out loser Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) as his partner. These two dumb kids proceed to hold up the game and make off with the mob’s stash, in one of the few sequences that delivers a jolt of tightly coiled suspense, albeit stemming more from the culprits’ bumbling incompetence than from anything else.
“You know they’re gonna kill ya?” Markie murmurs to Russell mid-heist, a look of genuine sympathy on his face. The movie goes on to glumly prove his point, as his higher-ups bring in their smooth, reliable and unfailingly pragmatic enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Pitt), to wipe out those responsible. When suspicion falls on Markie, Pitt becomes the very picture of a reluctant assassin, one who kills strictly out of professional obligation and often hires others to do the dirty work. “I like to kill ’em softly — from a distance,” he says, summing up the joyless efficiency with which he goes about his job.
Retaining the pungent, Elmore Leonard-esque tang of Higgins’ dialogue, yet rendering it tighter and more comprehensible for the screen, Dominik’s loquacious screenplay employs a stop-and-go rhythm, dominated by lengthy, two-character exchanges punctuated by potent spasms of violence. Not even a routine beating can be dished out without copious amounts of planning, hedging, negotiating, arguing and cussing beforehand, the goombah equivalent of bureaucratic red tape. When the attacks do arrive, they’re amply foreshadowed, alternately sped up or slowed down for heightened dramatic impact, yet drained of anything that might be mistaken for a rush of pleasure.
Certainly not for all tastes, especially those of straight-up action fans, the picture’s restraint places a considerable burden on the actors to maintain interest, which they shoulder impressively. A couple of them get great, tongue-in-cheek entrances; Pitt’s Jackie, sporting shades and slicked-back hair, packs just a hint of a strut as he strides into the frame backed by Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” James Gandolfini, amusingly disagreeable as a hitman who’s let his taste for booze and prostitutes ruin his killer instincts, is introduced getting off a plane like a shlub attending a sales convention.
Appearing exclusively opposite Pitt, Richard Jenkins socks over his turn as a bespectacled, tight-laced mob liaison with a particular aversion to cigarette smoke. Sam Shepard has a too-brief turn as a local rough, but Liotta, in only a few minutes of screen time, makes poor Markie a figure of real pathos and enormous likability; casting of Liotta and fellow screen-gangster icon Gandolfini slyly underlines the pic’s notion of the cruel-to-indifferent fates that await everyone in this bloody biz.
Skillful technical package is distinguished by Greig Fraser’s color-muted widescreen lensing, Brian A. Kates’ deft editing and Leslie Shatz’s subtle sound design, employing occasional drones and dissonances in lieu of a score. In keeping with the economic realities impinging on the story, the film was shot in Louisiana for tax-incentive purposes; while the rundown locations are well suited to the story’s gone-to-seed atmosphere, the absence of New Orleans color and the indiscriminate mix of tough-guy accents suggest these sorry-ass proceedings could be taking place anywhere.