Sunday, December 2, 2012


Killing Them Softly is a tense, talky little thriller, shot through with obvious arty nods towards oblique, gritty crime movies of the 1970s, the kind where glowering character actors talk all around their conflict between moments of bloody consequences. Writer-director Andrew Dominik, adapting the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, moves the setting from 1970s Boston to late-2008 New Orleans, the better to suit his thesis that connects American capitalism to the robbery and retribution that powers the film’s plot. The connection is made early and often, most obviously and effectively in the film’s crackerjack inciting incident in which two low-level criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a card game organized by a mid-level criminal (Ray Liotta). While cash is forced into a pair of briefcases at gunpoint, the TV in the background breaks into regularly scheduled programming, filling the room with the sounds of George W. Bush explaining the need to bailout Wall Street.

It’s immediately obvious that Dominik is going to hammer home his thematic intent with all the subtlety of blunt force trauma, throwing a sharp elbow into the audience’s side shouting “Get it?” To say it has subtext would be too kind. Luckily, the film, a small, tough work of quiet tension, is just good enough to sustain itself in the face of its auteur trying a little too hard. Besides, I far prefer a film that’s trying a little too hard to a film that’s too lazy to leave much of an impact. Here, the ultimate entrepreneurial criminal is represented by Brad Pitt playing a dark, smoking, and professional hitman. He rides into the picture to the tune of Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, ready to clean up the mess caused in the underworld by this first-act robbery. Negotiating with a lawyer for shadowy interests (Richard Jenkins), Pitt agrees to bring in a big-shot out-of-town killer (James Gandolfini) to help take down three conspirators and one scapegoat. Nobody’s going to stick up a card game in this town and think they can get away with it. Not on his watch, not as long as he gets his money.

Pitt’s performance is controlled, unshowy work that forms a quietly dangerous center around which the other characters can turn. The film is structured around scenes of men glowering across tables and cars at each other, talking through long-winded monologues and dialogues about what they’re about to do or what they’ve just done. The writing in these moments is alternately humdrum and prickly, occasionally finding laughs so easily that if it weren’t such a carefully scripted picture you’d think it was by accident. In roundabout discussions and unexpected twists of language, the movie works. In between these scenes of tightly wound wordiness are directorial flourishes of fades, slow motion, jarring edits, and surprising jolts of sound design. Much like last year's Drive, this is a kind of distillation of crime movie tropes built back up with self-conscious moodiness and stylishly upsetting splashes of violence.

Though Dominik gets fine performances out of his cast and puts them through tough, crisp crime plotting of a fairly satisfactory kind, the film is in the end only an argument for itself. The closed loop of plotting leaves it all feeling empty, like drab pessimism for nothing more than the sake of drab pessimism. The coldly cynical underpinnings that reverberate throughout the film are often electrifying, juxtaposing speeches by then-candidate Barack Obama or news reports about the freefalling economic conditions with the story’s matter-of-fact preparations and negotiations leading up to theft and violence. But such stabs at weightier intent and broader implications are as exasperating as they are electrifying, both too obvious and too muddled. Cynicism comes cheap, something made especially clear when a general air of disaffected, inconclusive unhappiness is really all this particular film is up to in its grumbling thematic content.

It’s a good thing that Dominik just about makes up for the thematic mud underneath his glossy images and appealingly (type)cast group of sad, violent, greedy men. Even if by its conclusion, the film comes up emptier than you’d expect, it’s still a competent genre exercise, suspenseful and engaging all the way through. Its characters are unapologetically looking out for nothing more than reasons to advance in their criminal occupation of choice, to get the job done and get paid. As such, it’s a small film that only steps wrong when it tries to act bigger than it is.

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