Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel “Cogan’s Trade,” takes place in an atrophied post-Katrina New Orleans in 2008. Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a hitman whose preferred method of execution is explained in the film’s updated title. As Dominik plays boldly with style, the heart of this formally impressive genre exercise slowly stops beating — killed not softly but showily.
Aviator-shaded Cogan arrives to investigate a Mob-protected poker game that has been looted. Unfortunately for the game’s overseer, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), he once successfully organized a heist of his own card room, and the players know it. In the wake of a second heist, Markie’s in the hot seat. The culprits of the second robbery are Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of wobbly-voiced lowlifes hired by an outside party to raid the game. They’re smart enough to know that the crime will be pinned on Markie, and dumb enough to believe that it won’t then be slapped on their own grimy foreheads.
Cogan is hired to wipe out all the involved. He imports some help for the hits in the rotund form of Mickey (James Gandolfini). But Mickey’s washed up. His days of stealth killing are over, now a swampland of booze and prostitutes. Cogan must be the lone gunman on this assignment.
As Cogan, Pitt is soft-voiced and level-eyed. He has no problem looking the part — he easily cradles Cogan’s outsized shotgun, with slicked hair and manicured goatee in place. But this hardboiled character feels hollow. In his first title role for Dominik, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Pitt ably conveyed bottomless loneliness. James is inscrutable, but his sadness is apparent. Cogan is easier to figure out — he’s practical, jaded and avoids messiness — but those clean corners don’t add up to a living, breathing character. I wish some of Ray Liotta’s heartbreaking desperation as Markie had rubbed off (or splattered) on Pitt’s cool-as-ice Cogan.
The rest of the cast is solid, if unremarkable. Scoot McNairy does his best Casey Affleck impression (who was originally slated for the role), and it’s good enough. James Gandolfini is appropriately scummy and miserable. Richard Jenkins is always a welcome addition, here as a local Mob rep who delivers Cogan his instructions. Australian talent Ben Mendelsohn of “Animal Kingdom” has a fine time with being drug-addled.
Dominik’s direction waltzes toward and away from excellence. The heist scene is scathingly suspenseful. Dominik divides his camera between Frankie and Russell’s macho bumbling and the many ruffled patrons in the room whose hands keep wandering south of the table. He shoots the looting much like an actual poker game — keeping an eye on everyone, alert to scheming. A sequence where Russell gets high is lyrically shot, with the camera fading in and out to black a ballsy number of times. Some may find it annoyingly bloated. But it shows commitment.
Speaking of: Political dialogue from background TVs and radios drones throughout the film. It’s an on-the-nose way of pointing out the precipice of recession. At the same time, the constant gimmick creates a sort of hermetic universe. Cogan, Frankie and the others seem to move through a no-man’s-land where political debating, posturing and lying has taken the place of chirping birds and rustling wind.
On the one hand, Dominik’s stylish chops deliver the film’s best moments. On the other, his approach takes away the heart that needs to beat for style to succeed. While competent, the script conforms to the tics of the traditional and limited American crime film. And the performances don’t break new ground. Dominik is capable of turning genre on its head –“The Assassination of Jesse James” takes the Western and finds poetry. “Killing Them Softly” turns the crime film into empty political pedantry.