Killing Them Softly | Movie review
Writer-director Andrew Dominik returns with a chatty, self-serious crime drama.
From cowboys to wiseguys: New Zealand–born filmmaker Andrew Dominik sets his sights on another intrinsically American genre with Killing Them Softly, his first film since 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unlike that glorious neo-Western, however, this cheaply cynical gabfest—adapted from Cogan’s Trade, a novel by George V. Higgins—puts little trust in our ability to recognize the parallels between its den of thieves and our own dog-eat-dog world. The movie’s allegorical gestures are as blunt as its brutal gangland violence.
Early on, in the film’s dramatic peak, two Louisiana lowlifes (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) unwisely knock off a high-end poker game. It’s a suffocatingly suspenseful scene—one of the year’s best, really—and from here you’re primed for a queasy study in outrun-your-sins desperation. Instead, and somewhat perversely, Killing Them Softly shifts its focus to a smooth hit man (Brad Pitt, less menacing here than in Jesse James) brought in to take care of the amateur crooks. A consummate professional, the assassin treats murder as a transaction; the film, highlighting a familiar crime-capitalism connection, gets dragged down in his endless shop talk with a middleman (Richard Jenkins) and a washed-up colleague (James Gandolfini, supplying the lone traces of sentiment).
Did we mention that Killing Them Softly is set in 2008, during the homestretch of the presidential race? Using sound bites and campaign footage as a kind of Greek chorus, Dominik pulls off a dubious feat: shrouding a scuzzy, Tarantinoesque crime drama in pretensions of seriousness. Of course, Jesse James caught charges of art-cinema bombast, too. Making a distinction between the two depends on knowing the difference between grandeur and delusions of it.