(by Dustin Putman
"Killing Them Softly" is a methodical slow-burn crime thriller, graphic spurts of violence interspersed between memorably acerbic stretches of dialogue-rich character exchanges. Writer-director Andrew Dominik (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), adapting for the new millennium the novel "Cogan's Trade" by George V. Higgins, isn't exactly shy about his intentions. Whereas most films of this ilk might feature an underlying thematic thread complimenting and running parallel to the main storyline, Dominik lays his cynicism out in the open for all to see from the very beginning, opening credits and music fit for a horror movie portentously stuck between shots of a trash-riddled landscape, Presidential "Change" billboards, and sound bytes of a not-yet-elected Barack Obama speaking about the potential for a new, all-for-one America. George W. Bush and Obama pop up throughout on televisions and radios, their voices loud and clear as they discuss the country's financial woes. Meanwhile, the ne'er-do-wells on view living in a stark, perpetually overcast New Orleans are doing whatever they can to make a few bucks, breaking the law and getting themselves into water too hot to escape from. It's all rather self-indulgent and certainly on-the-nose—even Dominik himself would have to agree with this—but also knows how to keep the viewer's attention. It starts by grabbing for the jugular. Article continues below
Instructed by boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), small-time hoods Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob-protected card game. They believe at first that they've gotten away with it, not yet realizing that they've set into motion contracts out for all three of their lives. Calm, collected enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) comes to town to make sure the hits go off as planned, enlisting Florida-based hired killer Mickey (James Gandolfini) for the job. Mickey arrives, all right, but he's a mess, so preoccupied by booze and hookers he can't be trusted to correctly get things done. With no one else to turn to, Jackie takes matters into his own hands, leaving a trail of blood as grisly as his nerves are smooth as silk.
"Killing Them Softly," which refers to Jackie's preferred method of murder, standing back from the crime rather than personally getting involved with the victims-to-be, is the opposite of subtle when it comes to its mayhem and carnage, scenes of bullets protruding through skin and brain matter being blown to bits coming one of two ways: dirty, unexpected and sudden, or rendered morbidly artful via balletic slow-motion. Director Andrew Dominik reminds of an early-career version of the Coen Bros. in his ability to bring unlikely dark humor to the fold, as well as an enduring hold on his mise en scene (loved the aural use of the rattling generator out back during Frankie's and Russell's initial robbery). Caustic bits of comedy, some of it observational, much of it absurdist, thoroughly tingles with rhythmic immediacy, from Frankie's and Russell's conversations about sex, to Russell's fatigued, heroin-fueled tripping, to Mickey's unapologetically excessive living as he chatters with Jackie.
Brad Pitt (2011's "Moneyball") makes for a cold, calculating, yet somehow even-keeled and charming Cogan, a man who knows what needs to get done and isn't going to let anything get in the way of his finished business. In a film that is treated more as an ensemble than a star piece, Scoot McNairy (2012's "Argo") and Ben Mendelsohn (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") are just as prominently featured as Frankie and Russell, clumsy criminals who have gotten mixed up with the wrong guys. McNairy and Mendelsohn are so believable in their roles it is as if Dominik snatched them off the actual streets of Louisiana. Disappearing behind a colorful character whose part is, if anything, a red herring, James Gandolfini (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") is deliciously profane as Mickey, a belligerent screw-up who manages to still be as likable as a little boy who hasn't quite figured out right from wrong. Ray Liotta (2009's "Observe and Report") also gets some strong moments—and two of the picture's most bone-crushingly violent—as Markie Trattman, an unlucky card shark who gets incorrectly fingered as a participant in the robbery.
"Killing Them Softly" uses soundtrack cues well—though arguably overplayed in movies, Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" makes for a vivid introduction to Brad Pitt's Jackie, while Cliff Edwards' cover of Nat King Cole's "It's Only a Paper Moon" is taken superbly unsettling advantage of near the end—and Greig Fraser's (2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman") grimy cinematography is intercut with sparks of acidly beautiful inspiration. In addition, the movie is stylistically punchy and Jackie's concluding monologue, angrily speaking against Obama's election speech as it happens in front of him on the television, is nothing if not scathingly blunt. Taken all together, "Killing Them Softly" is too obvious for its own good, the narrative filled with stops and starts as it loses interest in its plot on numerous occasions and heads off on tangents based more on Andrew Dominik's interest in listening to his own words than storytelling necessity. His points are succinct, but only marginally convincing; whether the country is in a financial crisis or not, there are always going to be thugs out there looking for ways to get money without having to earn it. It is best, then, to view the film as an unapologetic thriller about people digging their own graves. By the end, most are lying in them, and it doesn't seem as if anyone's going to miss them.