A small-time gangster story is played both as a metaphor for twenty-first century American society and in a style more European than American in Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” It’s not without violent moments—indeed, very violent ones. But for the most part “Killing Them Softly” is more concerned with dialogue than mayhem, and though the monologues might sometimes remind you of riffs from Tarantino’s word processor, they’re delivered in a languid, theatrical style that resembles French existentialist rumination than Quentin’s typical rants. The result can be heavy-handed at times, but it’s still moodily effective.
The linchpin of the plot, adapted from George Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Trade,” is a scheme concocted by Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), an erstwhile hood now in the dry-cleaning business, to rob a gang-run card game overseen by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As he tells Frankie (Scoot McNairy), the down-and-out fellow he taps to do the deed, it’s Markie who’ll get the blame, and the bullet that goes with it, because the same thing once happened to Trattman before and his bosses let him off the hook when he protested his non-involvement even after a beating from enforcer Dillon (Sam Shepard). Later, though, Markie stupidly bragged that he was behind the heist, and it will be presumed he masterminded this one, too. Though Amato is dubious of Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), the drug-addled punk Frankie chooses as a partner, he sends the duo on their way—and they pull off the job successfully.
Since Dillon’s not available, the mob’s officious middle-man (Richard Jenkins) calls in his stand-in, Jackie (Brad Pitt), a cynical, coolly efficient sort, to find out who was responsible and handle the matter—though he’s hamstrung by the corporate mentality that shuns quick action and requires that everything be approved in advance. Given the ineptitude of the perps and Jackie’s expertise, it’s hardly surprising that he uncovers the truth fairly quickly. But the caution of his employers is frustrating, and he makes an error in judgment himself when he subcontracts a part of the job to Mickey (James Gandolfini), a once-reliable hit-man who turns out to be depressed and more interested in booze and hookers than earning his pay. It’s an “oops” moment, but Jackie knows how to fix that, too.
All of this hoodlum melodrama is played out at a deliberate tempo similar to that which Dominik (here abetted by editor Brian A. Kates) brought to “Jesse James.” But the atmosphere is different—positively drenched in darkness, rain and a burnt-out urban landscape, courtesy of cinematographer Greg Fraser, production designer Patricia Norris and set decorator Leslie Morales. And Dominik updates Higgins’ story, situating it in 2008 against the backdrop of the world financial collapse that he uses as a counterpoint to the narrative, inserting a blizzard of radio and TV reports, including clips of President Bush and candidate Obama and advertisements from the ongoing presidential campaign, to compare the country’s sclerotic economic and political system to the bureaucratic anemia of the gangland operations he’s portraying. It’s the visual equivalent of the cynical dismissal of establishment rhetoric about fairness and community that Jackie expresses in words—and though it’s a perfectly valid observation, Dominik emphasizes it so insistently, and with such in-your-face obviousness, that it does become obvious and shrill.
But the film compensates, especially in the acting. Pitt endows Jackie with an air of subdued professionalism, getting a particularly good moment when he describes his preferred method of operation with the titular phrase; and he’s especially strong in his scenes with Gandolfini and the deliciously jumpy Jenkins, as well as in a final sequence with McNairy. Dominik cannily toys with movie-and-TV gangster lore—both “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos”—by casting Liotta (surprisingly sympathetic) and Gandolfini (exuberantly nasty), as well as Curatola, who paired off with the latter on his HBO classic. Even Mendelsohn, who plays the squirrelly Russell, recalls a past crime saga—in his case the Australian gem “Animal Kingdom.”
Some viewers may be as annoyed by the patience Dominik demands of them as Jackie is by that his employers impose on him, preferring that he’d just get on with the narrative. But it isn’t the plot that makes this film fascinating; it’s the stylish way Dominik tells it, and the grimly fatalistic mood he so carefully fashions. The result has some memorable hard-edged moments, but it’s the quiet conversational ones that carry the greater resonance.