Brad Pitt stars in this darkly comic thriller based on a 1974 George V. Higgins crime novel. Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is a professional 'point man' - that is, the investigator who prepares the way for a hitman - who is assigned to track down a pair of junkies who have ripped off a mob-protected poker game. The star-studded supporting cast includes Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy and Sam Shepard.
Based on Killing Them Softly's somewhat misleading promotional campaign, expectant audiences may have thought they were in for an action-driven crime thriller. There's plenty of grit, street life, gangland lingo, and nuts-and-bolts criminal insiderism, but the overall tone is more akin to a David Mamet play than a rollicking Hollywood shoot-'em-up.
The movie is an adaptation of the fine George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade, and it nicely transposes the tone and delivery of Higgins's spare prose into a visual style that keeps a long, lingering gaze on its unlovable bad guys. It also holds an attentive ear to the rhythm and pattern of their speech, turning the extended stretches of dialogue into unique tableaux of stylish exchanges between hit men, lowlife punks, and middle management gangsters. These scenes of hushed talk are infused with deeper meaning, not to mention lots of wit, and they make up the bulk of the film, whether in cars, bars, or hotel rooms or on street corners.
Brad Pitt is a sleek and enigmatic presence as Jackie Cogan, a professional killer who's as exasperated by the stupidity around him as he is obsessed with the details of doing his job right. After an odd couple of hapless losers (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, who are a hoot) hit a mob-run card game, Jackie is called in to clean up the mess. Richard Jenkins is in terrific form as the befuddled mob accountant who reluctantly gives him the assignment. Thinking he'll need help with the job, Jackie enlists his long-time associate Mickey. But as inhabited by James Gandolfini, Mickey turns out to be a slovenly mess who Jackie clearly sees is past his prime. There are two long, highly oblique scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini that crackle with greatness. Also in the soup of clouded meaning and distinctive formal structure is Ray Liotta as Markie, the boob who runs the card game. A rain-soaked scene that has Markie at the four-fisted end of a brutal beat-down is one of the most vicious and visually poetic fights ever seen.
The master of all the talking, fleeting sequences of grisly violence and philosophizing about financial downfall and change (the movie is set on the cusp of 2008's economic crisis and presidential campaign) is director Andrew Dominik. Much as he did in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also starring Brad Pitt), Dominik is much more interested in the nuanced detail of manner and attitude than the physical action that results. That's not to say that Killing Them Softly doesn't excel at the remarkable execution of classic crime-drama set pieces. But the movie and its characters take a lot of time to hang back and observe and listen to get at the real meaning of how things happen and why. It's a process that's fascinating to watch, no matter how trivial the detail or how shocking the result. --Ted Fry