Morsels amid some cruel gruel
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 30, 2012
As a new entry under the heading What Hath Tarantino Wrought, “Killing Them Softly” possesses a modicum of swagger and style, even as it perpetuates some of the crime genre’s more tedious cliches, from slow-motion savagery to facile cynicism. Anchored by a terrific lead performance from Brad Pitt, this alternately bitterly funny and labored gangland parable might have felt bracingly new in an era before Quentin Tarantino and successors like David Chase and Martin McDonagh conferred their profane blessing on the marriage of brutal screen violence and operatic, self-aware dialogue.
Director Andrew Dominik tries to ratchet up the relevance by larding “Killing Them Softly” with references to the 2008 election, the financial meltdown and the similarities between Darwinian capitalism and street crime at its most thuggish and unforgiving. But rather than bitingly of-the-moment, the allegorical efforts feel strained, completely at odds with the air of seedy spontaneity that graces the film’s most indelible and even delectable moments.
More often than not, those scenes involve encounters between Pitt’s Jackie Cogan and an unnamed mob manager played by Richard Jenkins, who has enlisted Jackie to help clean up a mess involving two low-level hoods, a card game they sought to rob and the need to restore economic order by way of a targeted hit (no bailouts here).
What’s interesting about “Killing Them Softly” -- which is based on the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade” -- isn’t the plot itself, but the mooks, mugs, losers and lowlifes who populate it, a collection of stumblebums whose stupidity is exceeded only by their knack for self-deception.
Dominik, who last directed Pitt in the masterful postmodern Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” enlivens the otherwise monotonously unsavory cast of characters by enlisting a first-rate ensemble to play them, including Ray Liotta in a role that both reprises and subverts his Henry Hill persona from “Goodfellas” and James Gandolfini as a hired assassin being sucked down a vortex of food, alcohol and hookers. Both men feature in some of the most pitiless scenes of “Killing Them Softly,” including a cleverly staged chase that ends with a fight of bone-crunching, tooth-splitting viciousness.
Working with the clammy, desolate backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans, Dominik creates a world both familiar and surreally nihilistic, as its myriad villains ply a trade that’s cartoonishly idiotic when it’s not pathologically homicidal.
The lone voice of unsweet reason in “Killing Them Softly” belongs to Jackie, a pompadoured philosopher king whom Pitt imbues with equal parts sleaze and sympathy. The tete-a-tetes between Jackie and Jenkins’s mid-level executive -- wherein Jenkins’s character wearily complains about tightening budgets, expense authorizations and upper management -- swing and sing like tiny theater pieces, the murders they plot akin to corporate bloodlettings being gamed out in HR.
These quietly funny interludes offer sweet relief from the bullets, blood and breathtaking misogyny that comprise the rest of “Killing Them Softly,” in which the violence is no less graphic for being carefully stylized.
By the time Pitt delivers the film’s final aria of pessimism and realpolitik, the air of smug despair feels as oppressive as the pulverizing beat-downs that have gone before. Hope and change come in for their share of body blows in “Killing Them Softly,” but the film’s own jaundiced amorality ultimately feels just as devoid of meaning or genuine edge.