9:45 AM EST, November 29, 2012
In an ugly economy, murder becomes the last beautiful act. That's the state of the nation in "Killing Them Softly," a harsh and stimulating black comedy set in the recent past, starring Brad Pitt as a hit man hired to eliminate, in his own inimitable style, some underworld thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Taking place in 2008, the film comes from the New Zealand-born, Australia-bred writer-director Andrew Dominik. He teamed with Pitt five years ago on "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Following that difficult but often magnificent elegy, which went nowhere in financial terms but already looks like a modern classic, Dominik had the devil's own time getting his next project together in Hollywood.
You can tell. Much of the dialogue in "Killing Them Softly" concerns financial difficulties experienced by contract killers as well as the shady characters employing them. At one point, conversing in the car where they conduct their meetings, Pitt's Jackie Cogan tells his overseer, played by Richard Jenkins, that he'd like to bring in a second assassin to help out. Jenkins' character replies: "They are not gonna OK anything major here." Surely this is a line Dominik heard in one studio executive's office or another.
There's a mob movie in there somewhere too. Dominik freely adapted the 1974 George V. Higgins novel "Cogan's Trade." It begins with a nervy idea for a robbery that, miraculously, works: Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny Sack on "The Sopranos") enlists a couple of addled punks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a high-stakes poker game controlled by Markie. He's played by Ray Liotta, whose part may have been curtailed in the editing; the film runs a tight 97 minutes.
The stolen money is mob money, which means retribution must be exacted. Jackie, costumed for maximum '70s cool, sub-contracts some of the work to his old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini), an alcohol-soaked has-been with a thing for prostitutes. Much of this is familiar; most everything interesting in "Killing Them Softly" couldn't care less about the primary narrative line. This is a talkative picture, allowing time and space for comically preoccupied and quirkily pathetic exchanges between all sorts of strays and losers.
The title refers to a cliched romantic notion of Jackie's approach to his job — nice and easy, exemplified by a key killing depicted by Dominik as a gorgeous slowmotion blur of shattered glass, flying bullets and aesthetic perfection. A little of this creamy slaughter goes a long way. Some of the dialogue in "Killing Them Softly" bonks! you right on the schnozz. The thesis line, spoken by Jackie, couldn't be more direct in its opinion of a land on the verge of defaulting on everything in sight. "America," he says, "is not a country. It's a business." And Americans aren't making what they used to.
The atmosphere of fiscal panic is heightened by the way Dominik frames the action against news of the U.S. banks bailout of '08, as well as cable TV snippets of then-presidential campaigner Barack Obama's idealistic stump speeches. (Hardly subtle, these recall the way Nixon's visage was deployed in the 1968-set "Shampoo.") Dominik is two directors in one, really: He'll sit back and content himself with framing simple, clean two-person verbal sequences when called for. He's also skillful in staging violence on the move, as in the scene where Liotta's bantamweight bigwig is dragged through and then out of his office trailer by extreme force. The picture offers some easy, brutal laughs and some harder ones, and now and then, it finds a way to make the laughter stick in your craw. Jenkins' line applies to the film as a whole. "Killing Them Softly" isn't anything major. But it's a pungent minor film only vaguely resembling the one The Weinstein Co. is advertising, and that's fine with me.
'Killing Them Softly' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use)
Running time: 1:37
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