There are no good guys in Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” only people caught on two sides of a rough deal. The director’s gritty, violent and heavily stylized adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel updates the story to recession-era 2008 and overstates it to the extreme, but Dominik brings a sleek pulp sensibility to the material and melds its topicality to a strange form of scathingly anti-capitalist entertainment.
“Cogan” is Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a merciless hitman assigned to knock off various players involved in robbing a Boston poker game filled with mobsters. But the movie takes its time getting there, spending its first act entirely in the frantic realm of the bottom-feeders involved in the initial theft: Frankie (Scoot McNairy, “Monsters”), a weak-kneed small-time crook hired by scheming thug Johnny (Vincent Curatola) alongside clueless junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to pull off a seemingly foolproof robbery that strategically positions another mobster, Markie (Ray Liotta), as the fall guy. The gig goes off without a hitch until Cogan enters the scene, hired by an unnamed mob representative (Richard Jenkins) to take care of everyone involved.
So he does. “Killing Them Softly” has a fairly minimal plot line, inching toward its inevitable series of murders with the same deceptively simple premise found in Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,” which spoiled the ending right in the title. But both movies are essentially tone poems that use narrative to prop up various attitudes and moods. The sense of alienation in “Jesse James,” invariably seen as influenced by Terrence Malick, takes on a more polemic dimension here; Dominik bathes each scene in cynicism. The screenplay is a treatise on why the tough guys always win in a society invariably set against itself. He has constructed a provocative revisionist history that beats the original Obama election message of hope and progress to a bloody mass.
The movie isn’t political so much as philosophical, trashing the notion of the American dream as anything more than fodder for an endless rat race. All the rhetoric bleeds together: “This is an extraordinary period for America’s economy,” President Bush says from a television in the background while the heist takes place. “This moment is our chance,” Obama asserts in the opening minutes, as Frankie wanders through a decrepit street.
Over time, these reminders of the election season grow tedious, but Dominik barrels forward with absolute conviction, resulting in a constant tension between extraordinary filmmaking technique and a transparent screenplay rarely capable of keeping pace. As with “Jesse James,” this is a truly cinematic work that could accomplish its fundamental appeal with the volume off. Primarily composed of close-ups, smooth tracing shots and whispery conversations about the hierarchy of the killing business, the movie derives its disquieting style from Cogan’s mentality, which also supplies the title: “I like to kill ’em softly, from a distance,” he says.
His empathy manifests in broad strokes. An occasionally overdone soundtrack props up most scenes; Russell shoots up to The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” announces Jackie’s initial appearance. Classic jazz tunes underscore two of the more graphic scenes in this constant quest to uncover the poetry in mayhem. It only works if you give in to its intense determination.
There’s an amusement factor in Dominik’s attempts to define Jackie as a no-nonsense man for a time dominated by economic nonsense. However, “Killing Them Softly” owes a lot to the investment of its cast; Pitt delivers a run-of-the-mill scowling tough guy, but then that’s what the material calls for him to do; James Gandolfini, as a hitman colleague past his breaking point and unable to stay in the game, brings the most colorful and amusing moments. Both he and Liotta, some of the more typecast actors working today, manage to make roles we’ve seen them do before feel fresh by making their characters look surprisingly pathetic.
Like the rest of “Killing Them Softly,” the cast is positioned in blatant symbolic terms. By the time Jackie explains the “corporate mentality” of the killing process, Dominik has made made his intentions so clear that they nearly collapse. The final scene takes place on election night — and, of course, Obama’s victory speech plays a key role in Jackie’s closing monologue, which also focuses on the tenuous myth of (ulp) Thomas Jefferson. It’s the ultimate expression of the movie’s strengths and weaknesses combined, rendering the “Yes we can” chant in brutally ironic terms.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A tough sell for The Weinstein Company, given that Brad Pitt has been an uncertain proposition at the box office these days, and the movie is bound to divide critics. Dominik’s arty style didn’t do much for “Jesse James” at the box office, although the genre element of “Killing Them Softly” should give it a leg up for its first week or so when it opens later this year.