Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt as a hitman, and I’m going to stop right away and assure you that it’s about twelve times more interesting than it already sounds. That’s because it’s the work of Andrew Dominick, the writer/director of Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which remains one of Pitt’s most compelling (and experimental) films. The plot is ancient, stale even: a pair of low-level greaseballs are hired by a dry cleaner to knock over a lucrative high-stakes mob card game, and Pitt is Cogan, the contractor brought in to clean up the mess (i.e., track the perps down and take them out).
I’m going to stop again, because it feels like it must be reiterated — you think you have seen this movie before, but you haven’t (or, at least, not like this). Dominick’s screenplay (adapted from Cogan’s Trade, a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins) is full of odd left turns and strange structural flourishes; he starts, for example, with the narrative equivalent of coming in through the window, focusing on the secondary characters, his marquee leading man and ostensible main character not entering until at least twenty minutes in. The rest of the picture plays out in an episodic, almost elliptical fashion, framing the business of crime and clean-up like any other dull job, a grind punctuated by bursts of violence and intimidation.
Dominick sets his story in the final weeks of the 2008 election cycle, as the economy free-fell and, yes, it did seem televisions and radios were on all the time, broadcasting the latest doom-saying from the President and the candidates. Dominick uses those news broadcasts and speeches almost like background music, sometimes effectively (Bush’s speech on the meltdown is heard as thugs empty their wallets at the card game), sometimes as cheap counterpoint (his claim that we have “the greatest workers in the world” is heard as a punk tries to steal a waitress’ tip). It’s not always subtle, but it is evocative — and for that matter, why is it that news broadcasts in movies are only commenting on the action of that movie? What’s wrong with portraying the world outside the frame? — and it provides the ingredients for the picture’s stunning opening, a jarring, sharp-edged sequence that bracingly intercuts Obama sound bites, shrill ambient noise, and images of urban decay.
More trenchant is the pall cast over the story by the feeling of an economy in a vice, which has led to a “total corporate mentality” even in the crime business, according to the lackey (Richard Jenkins, perfection) who is Cogan’s liaison. They spend most of their scenes sitting in cars, buck-passing and complaining and gossiping, the kind of guys Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace was talking about with that “sewing circle” crack.
“Who’s running things?” Cogan asks. “No leaders,” he replies, and Dominick spins a tart running joke out of how this middle man has to get sign-offs on all of Cogan’s expenditures. The hit man tells him he’s getting bargains: “In this economy, a quick 15 is pretty good for a guy like Mickey.” The reply is terse: “Fly him coach.”
And with that, James Gandolfini enters the picture, with, at long last, a film performance that deserves comparison to his TV work. His Mickey is the Shelly Levene of the film, a hard luck case who spends most of his time hitting the sauce and telling his sad story. “What’re you gonna do? You do the best you can,” he shrugs, and then goes off to bang a bunch of hookers. On reflection, his character doesn’t really move the plot forward much. Or maybe he’s what the whole movie is actually about.
Dominick is, unfortunately, not working with his Jesse James cinematographer Roger Deakins — who was presumably off shooting a James Bond movie — though Grieg Fraser does some fine work (even if a heroin sequence leans on some pretty trite visual clichés). His camerawork is frequently witty (dig the car door mount), and the film is filled with smashing set pieces: a brutal beating that is shot right up close and with the gruesome sound effects so internalized, it feels like it’s happening to you; a rainy, on-road hit packed with bravura, dreamlike imagery; an early bit of intimidation, done all in one take, that’s as funny as it is harrowing. In a key supporting role, Argo MVP Scoot McNairy again prompts the “who the hell is that remarkable actor?” query; Animal Kingdom’s terrifying Ben Mendelsohn is sweaty, scuzzy, and terrific. And while I’m still not sure Pitt quite earns that Johnny Cash “Man Comes Around” entrance, his delivery of the picture’s killer closing speech is a scorcher. Some of Killing Them Softly’s early viewers have dismissed it as slow, ponderous, pretentious. Don’t forget: they said the same thing about Dominick’s last movie too.
Killing Them Softly is out today in wide release.