Title: Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, James Gandolfini, Trevor Long, Max Casella, Sam Shepard
When they’re not prescribed solely by box office haul, the deeper ambitions of most genre films extend only to technique, or state-of-the-art special effects. “Killing Them Softly,” a grimy, well orchestrated, coiled-spring crime drama from writer-director Andrew Dominik, centers around a knocked-over high stakes card game and its bloody after-effects, which is kind of appropriate, given that its gnarled, underworld plotting is itself a bluff for the multi-faceted intentions it really has. Darkly entertaining and perfectly absorbing on its own surface terms, Dominik’s third feature film takes on a grander stature as it stretches its legs and morphs into a pessimistic disquisition on the systemic nature of corruption in unregulated markets.
Adapted from George V. Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Trade,” and relocated from Boston to New Orleans, the movie tells the story of a group of guys who hatch what they believe to be an ingenious plan to take down a Mob-protected card game, figuring that its blowhard host, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), will take the fall since he already feigned the robbery of one of his games in the past. Down-on-his-luck Frankie (Scoot McNairy) brings volatile junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) into the fold as the other gunman, but things go sideways after the supposedly easy boost, and their identities are compromised.
Mid-level enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to clean things up, consulting with underworld consigliere Driver (Richard Jenkins). The decision is made to deal with Markie and the others by calling in Mickey (James Gandolfini), an out-of-town assassin of unhealthy and indiscreet appetites who’s fallen on hard times. But that, too, proves to be a decision fraught with unintended consequences, obligating Jackie wade further into the breach to clean up matters himself.
Its plot proper is fairly simple, but Dominik, in his adaptation, tucks the film’s narrative neatly under delicious dialogue and colorful characterizations, so it has an extra layer of intrigue, and almost creeps up on viewers. He and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot much of the action in shallow focus, creating a world of seemingly authentic scumminess. Most notably, though, Dominik also sets his movie against the backdrop of the great autumnal financial collapse of 2008; on televisions and radios in the background, speeches from politicians serve to underline the parallel economic crunches destabilizing criminal enterprise and society more broadly.
In doing this — in dragging subtext forward into the light, albeit a dim one — and vivisecting institutional decay with such flourish and forcefulness, Dominik achieves something special, a work at once gracefully streamlined and kind of artistically blunt. It’s not a subtle film, but it’s not meant to be. Its contours are angular, not smooth. Abetted by great performances that spotlight squirrely, desperate aspiration as well as held power both hard and soft, “Killing Them Softly” carries a big stick. Its thesis, in tethering capitalism to corrosive self-interest and other, even baser instincts: even scummy ne’er-do-wells have to answer to someone, and they to their puppeteers as well. Social contracts are a fraud. However uncomfortable that makes a viewer feel, however, one can take or leave this sociopolitical metaphor without a whit of impact on their enjoyment of the overall product, one of the most stylish and evocatively nihilistic crime dramas of recent years.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.