‘Killing Them Softly’
Rated R for violence, sex references, pervasive profanity, drug use.
From the very start, gangster movies equated criminal inspiration with economic injustice.
D.W. Griffith's "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" (1912), credited with being the first gangster film, is set in motion by a stolen wallet.
The classic early sound thrillers of Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were products of the Depression, the tick-tick stutter of the ticker tape being the direct precursor to the rat-a-tat chatter of the Tommy gun.
Forty years later, "The Godfather" made a direct link between the Corleones and capitalism, and a "crime pays" message is repeated every week on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
Adapted from a 1974 novel called "Cogan's Trade," by the great George V. Higgins, "Killing Them Softly" throws this theme in your face like a fist. It pummels you with the notion as relentlessly as two thugs in the movie beat up Ray Liotta, a difference being that you probably won't vomit blood.
The story is set in 2008, and writer-director Andrew Dominik would have us believe that every underworld hangout in New Orleans at that time was equipped with a TV or radio that was tuned to reports of the Obama presidential campaign, the Goldman Sachs collapse or the Bush corporate bailout. The news talk is as ubiquitous as oxygen, but with the opposite effect: It sucks the life out of you.
This stylized soundtrack is as obvious as a textbook passage underlined in yellow Magic Marker in other ways, too. The spacey guitar of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" begins to play when a junkie shoots up. The crooned 1933 recording of "It's Only a Paper Moon" emerges, improbably, from a murder victim's car radio, so we can hear Cliff Edwards sing: "It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be." And can we please have a moratorium in movies on the use of Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash, especially "When the Man Comes Around"? (Here, the song introduces Brad Pitt, just six months after it performed similar duty in the trailer for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.")
And yet ... and yet ... I'm eager to see "Killing Them Softly" again. It contains multiple vivid performances; its highly textured evocation of an almost entirely male milieu of hardscrabble criminal hopelessness is convincing, distressing and pleasing to the eye, in its gritty detail; it's the rare movie that doesn't attempt to redeem or "save" its characters; and its obviousness may prove, on repeated exposure, to be more audacious than unwise.
Dominik's previous movie, the 160-minute "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007), was as patient and taciturn and epic and mysterious as the 95-minute "Killing Them Softly" is brisk and talky and compact and blatant; "Jesse James" was one of the most insinuatingly powerful movies of the past decade, so I'm willing to believe that the assertiveness of the new film may be the result of similarly painstaking and risky decision-making.
More twisty than complex, "Killing Me Softly" unfolds as a sort of lethal game of tag, as lowlife hoods Frankie (Scoot McNairy) — who has the air of a fall guy — and smart-aleck Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) — an Australian junkie and dognapper (he's disgusting but fun, like Keith Richards) — knock off a high-stakes card game operated by a mobster (Liotta). A well-spoken crime boss (Richard Jenkins) enlists confident hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to bring the perpetrators to "justice"; Cogan enlists the help of an out-of-town killer (James Gandolfini); and so on.
Like any business in the recession, the mob, if not the expansive Gandolfini, is tightening its belt, and the need to cut costs is a constant refrain. The out-of-town hit man has to fly "coach," while the fee for an assassination is now $10,000, not the previously accepted $15,000 — "recession prices," according to the crime boss.
The plotting is clever, but the film's pleasure resides primarily in its dialogue and performance. Appearing in, essentially, only two scenes (I wouldn't be surprised to learn other sequences were shot but removed from the final cut), Gandolfini should be a dark horse candidate for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work here, although that bit of recognition likely will elude him. His boozy, angry, sometimes pathetic conversations with the increasingly frustrated Cogan suggest the more subtle version of "Killing Them Softly" that might have been.
In the movie's opening scene, a character emerges from a tunnel onto a trash-strewn urban-blight landscape beneath an Obama billboard that reads: "Change." The concluding scene takes place in a bar, with Obama's 2008 victory speech echoing from a television. The president-elect speaks of "democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope," but Cogan will have none of it, and he launches into a rant that indicts not just Obama but the slaveholder "saint," Thomas Jefferson. "America's not a country," he says. "It's just a business." The line might have more impact if Dominik hadn't been telling us just that for the film's entire running time, but the grim conviction of the message, as presented here, is so uncompromising it's startling and even darkly refreshing.