Talk, shoot, repeat
Stylish and brutal crime story nearly talks itself to death
Killing Them Softly may sound like a crime movie with a lot of violent action, and in point of fact it is, but only by fits and starts. For roughly two-thirds of its not-very-long running time (97 minutes), this brash little drama is mostly a matter of tangled conversations between two guys, sometimes among three, all of them criminals of one sort or another (nearly a dozen all told), and each of them variously involved in the central story—the misbegotten hold-up of an underworld poker game and the efforts of a hit-man/enforcer named Jackie (played by Brad Pitt) to clean up the resulting mess.
Based on one of George V. Higgins’ Boston-set crime novels (originally titled Cogan’s Trade) but transplanted to what appears to be the New Orleans area on a very rainy week, this new offbeat effort from writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) may be neo-noir at its core, but quite a lot of it has at least one foot in something like Theatre of the Absurd. The detours and digressions of the dialogue scenes and the behaviorial absurdities of some of the criminals have a tinge of dark, brutal comedy to them, but nearly all of what’s at least partly funny in the movie is also at least partly upsetting.
Jackie is the central character, but he doesn’t really enter the action until after the card-game heist and the initial efforts of another enforcer, the semi-legendary Dillon (played by Sam Shepard), has had a crack at one of the presumed culprits. The first portions of the film deal with the not-so-impressive scheming of the very unimpressive hold-up men, a flashback/highlights account of a previous card-game hold-up, and the farcically tentative but still successful hold-up itself.
Jackie’s arrival brings the promise of some more serious action, but his first scenes involve further ironic, meandering conversations with a mild-mannered underworld “consultant” (Richard Jenkins). An East Coast hit-man named Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives, at Jackie’s behest, and in two extended scenes with Jackie (monologues, mostly) reveals his emotional and professional inadequacy for the task at hand.
Inactivity and futility are part of the point in this weirdly inverted crime story, and while it’s left to Pitt’s character to effectively settle the scores required by his bosses, the settling of those accounts is almost beside the point. What Dominik offers here is a pungently sleazy rogues’ gallery (which includes variously hapless punks played by Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long and the rapper Slaine, plus a much abused bar owner played by Ray Liotta) and a partial panorama of a society in frenzied decline.
The characters look like throwbacks from the ’70s and ’80s, but the action is pointedly set during the economic crisis (and election) of 2008. Jackie is reacting to the rhetoric of corporate bailouts and the wishful thinking of presidents past and present when he speaks the film’s final line: “Crime is the business of America.” That may be the final irony, but it comes too late to do the film much good.