Crime is 'just business' in 'Killing Them Softly'

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 06:07 PM

Killing Them Softly

Grade: C

Director: Andrew Dominik

Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta and Vincent Curatola

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

“America's not a country, it's just a business.” While uttered in the closing moments of writer-director Andrew Dominik’s gangster pastiche “Killing Them Softly,” this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer motif smacks you in the head beginning with the film's disorienting open shot. In it, Dominik shoots a two-bit hustler emerging from a New Orleans culvert — as if exiting through the dull end of a kaleidoscope — with a disembodied 2008 speech by presidential candidate Barack Obama acting as narrator.

While George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel “Cogan’s Trade” was set in the seamy seventies Boston underworld, Dominik updates the tableau to post-Katrina New Orleans, the 2008 U.S. Presidential race and the Wall Street bailout. Billboards, speeches and television news clips are omnipresent, as candidates bloviate about America as the land of promise and President George W. Bush explains the supposedly dire need for why $700 billion of no-strings-attached cash must be immediately earmarked to purchase failing bank assets.

Of course, analogizing mob syndicates as a subset of American capitalism has long been a pop culture staple. It’s no small wonder, then, that Dominik populates his cast with actors meant to evoke memories of previous cinematic touchstones, including Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”) and no fewer than three regulars from “The Sopranos,” including James Gandolfini. Richard Jenkins plays the consigliere for a group of faceless mob minders — I guess Robert Duvall wasn't available.

Dominik also re-teams with Brad Pitt, who collaborated on Dominik’s previous film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a masterful examination of America's affinity for celebrating its criminal heritage. In spite of its shopworn premise, “Killing Them Softly” could have also served as a spiritual sequel, an ironic take on how American cinema has exploited, and even furthered, that very mythologizing.

Unfortunately, the film proves ill-equipped for such heavy-handed allegory. Dominik adopts Higgins’ affinity for using pages of dialogue to illustrate events rather than chronicling them as they occur. While that might be an intriguing literary conceit, it proves infuriating on the screen when what's being said (and said and said...) isn't all that interesting.

Pitt is mesmerizing as gang enforcer Jackie Cogan, who is brought in to “manage” the fallout after three swindlers conspire to rob a Mob-sponsored card game run by local lackey Markie Trattman (Liotta). The film comes alive whenever Jackie is brandishing a sawed-off shotgun, interrogating a poor dolt (Scoot McNairy) involved in the heist or just jousting with Jenkins’ middle man about the complexities of mob bureaucracy. Unfortunately, those moments are subsumed by elongated conversations that do little to contribute to the storyline. One scene designed to advance a single plot point is extended to excruciating length by repeatedly cross cutting to the drug-addled point-of-view of one participant (Ben Mendelsohn). Gandolfini plays a washed-up hitman with a disintegrating home life and an unhealthy hankering for drink and degrading hookers, but his only two appearances comprise overlong, profane ramblings in which Jackie is relegated to passive listener.

What’s left is a film with high-minded posturing but little style or substance. Heck, it’s not really a gangster flick. It’s a portrait of an America ruled by avarice, where the have-nots are racked by vice and the haves are left to jockey for an even bigger piece of the pie. Lars von Trier would be proud.