Hoodlums and hit-men collide face-first with the recession in Killing Them Softly, a dark, disenchanted and decidedly indelicate new film from actor-producer Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominick. Adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, the film stars Pitt as a professional hit-man tasked with tracking down the men who robbed a mob-protected card-game. But as with Pitt and Dominick’s previous collaboration – the contemplative Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Killing Them Softly has aspirations of intellect beyond its genre conventions, and its violent plotting is accompanied at every turn by trendily pessimistic commentary on capitalist greed and iniquity – commentary that’s delivered, unfortunately, with all the finesse of a shotgun blast leveled straight at the back of your head.
The stricken streets of New Orleans circa late 2008 prove an obvious backdrop for Dominick’s grim financial metaphor, one in which the criminal underworld scrambles against economic collapse after a pair of junkies named Frankie (Scoot McNairy; Monsters) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn; Animal Kingdom) pull a heist on an underground poker match. Their plan is to pin the blame of the games’ organiser Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta; Observe and Report), already on thin ice with the community after pinching from the coffers himself the year before. But while the robbery is successful, the frame up doesn’t stick – and with the city’s illicit gambling suddenly at a standstill, the bosses are forced to dispatch ruthless Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to restore consumer confidence via bloody retribution.
All three of Dominick’s directorial efforts – Killing, Jesse James and his debut film Chopper – take place in cultures on the wrong side of the law, and all three are distinguishable by their superb sense of place, one created not only by locations but by the sound of the dialogue – colloquialisms and turns of phrase that gives credence to the unglamorous worlds in which his characters live, work and murder. In Killing Them Softly, be it the crude exchanges between the rodent-like Frankie and the dim-witted Russell, or the dispassionate front-seat meetings between Cogan and the nameless mob messenger who employs him (Richard Jenkins; The Cabin in the Woods), the language always feels true to the environment of the film, as well as the individuals who inhabit it.
The sense of authenticity comes also from the actors, not one of whom strikes a single bogus note. McNairy and Mendelsohn bring a lived-in raggedness to their no-hope petty-crooks – in Dominick’s fiscal allegory they’re the disenfranchised poor, just two of the more than forty million Americans who live below the poverty line, and whose dreams of socio-economic elevation seem fated to end in disaster. Further up the ladder, Richard Jenkins captures the mild irritability of a life-long middle man fed up with the “corporate mentality” of his employers (in his suit and tie he looks something like a bank-manager – just another cog in an enormous bureaucratic machine). And Liotta, paunchy and overconfident, represents the American middle class, blissfully unaware that the bubble’s about to burst, and that he’ll have no hope of talking his way out.
Finally there’s Cogan, who enters the film clad in leather jacket and sunglasses, hair slicked back, the days fifteenth cigarette hanging lazily from goateed lip, all to the grizzled tunes of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”. Ruthless, indiscriminate and in things entirely for himself, this cold-blooded killer is Dominick’s ultimate capitalist, and Pitt plays him like a slinking jaguar – cool and casual, often caustically funny, but also very, very dangerous. Many of the film’s best moments involve Pitt simply having a conversation – scenes between him and James Gandolfini (TVs The Sopranos) as his washed-up colleague bring us further into this world of disillusionment and despair, while an exchange in a bar between him and McNairy is the most tension-fraught scene of two men talking since the prologue of Inglourious Basterds.
Sadly, the other reason these scenes stand out is because they’re amongst the very few in which Dominick lets us think for ourselves. While the scripts’ allegorical material might sound fascinating, in reality its execution is embarrassingly heavy-handed; in a ninety-seven minute film, it seems that no more than five ever go by without Dominick shoehorning in a sound-bite of either Bush or Obama delivering a speech about economic hardship and the recession. It’s akin to a big red sign that reads “subtext”, one that’s followed by about a dozen exclamation points, underlined, stenciled onto a hammer and then pounded repeatedly into your face. And while it may sounds like a minor complaint, the message is so unrelenting that it soon drowns out all the films’ strengths – the acting, the atmosphere, the near perfect characterizations – in an ocean of fashionable nihilism and socially conscious outrage.
The visuals suffer from the same problem – although most of the film looks stunning, you’re more likely to remember the few, distracting moments of overblown stylization, such as a ridiculous slow-mo car crash, or a drug trip sequences meant to replicate the sensation of shooting up (I can’t vouch for its verisimilitude, but can testify as to how painful it was to watch). All in all, Killing Them Softly proves a frustrating viewing experience; a film that consistently hamstrings its own potential brilliance with a lack of subtlety that’s criminal.