Sunday, December 2, 2012
Connoisseurs of hard-boiled criminal melodramas should line-up for writer and director Andrew Dominik’s latest outing “Killing Them Softly,” (**** OUT OF ****) starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Sam Shepard, and Richard Jenkins. Mind you, this isn’t a high-octane heist caper with edge-of-the-seat suspense, careening car chases, and scantily clad beauty queens. If anything, “Killing Them Softly” qualifies as just the opposite. Had I not read the page-turner Dominik adapted for this third feature film, I would have thought he was imitating Quentin Tarantino without the torture scenes. Indeed, the first time I saw this atmospheric, but strictly small potatoes ‘disorganized crime’ thriller with its loquacious low-lifers, dismal urban locales, and ultra-violent, artsy-smartsy, shoot’em ups, I walked away with a low opinion of it. Dominik adapted “Killing Them Softly” from the 216-page novel “Cogan’s Trade,” published back in 1974, long before Tarantino arrived in Hollywood. Anybody who remembers the vintage Robert Mitchum movie “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), will savor this 97-minute epic. The characters are unsavory hoodlums with foul mouths and itchy trigger fingers who love to talk about their individual peccadilloes. A liquor-swilling James Gandolfini appears for three scenes and vanishes, while Pitt looks like a pirate, smokes like chimney, and sports a genuinely cynical attitude. Unfortunately, this Brad Pitt movie doesn’t look like it was designed for mainstream, PG-13 audiences, any more than Dominik’s last picture, the obscure western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Nevertheless, although it looks like a hundred other forgettable, straight-to-video crime movies, “Killing Them Softly” is one of the coolest, all-male, crime movies you will enjoy.
“Killing Them Softly” draws its title from the protagonist’s method of killing people. Chiefly, he doesn’t want to kill anybody who he knows. The victim’s outburst of emotion and their pleas for mercy horrify him. Basically, rather than killing somebody you know, you only rub out those you don’t know. Ostensibly, this riveting crime thriller amounts to a series of long-winded conversations between hoodlums punctuated with gunplay. While the novel took place in the 1970s, Dominik has updated it to 2008 during the Obama Vs. McCain presidential election. Wall Street has just plunged America into the depths of a recession, and nobody is happy. The economy is stalling out. An unlucky ex-con Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola of HBO’s “The Sopranos”) owns a dry-cleaning business. He hatches a scheme with an accomplice, Frankie (Scoot McNairy of “Argo”), that involves knocking over a mob-protected poker game. Everybody knowsif you try to steal from the mob, you can expect to die a hideous death. Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta of “Goodfellas”) masterminded such a heist; he robbed his own game and then convinced the mob enforcers sent to sweat a confession out of him that he didn’t do it. After Dillon (Sam Shepard of “Safe House”) and Kenny Gill (Slaine of “The Town”) rough Markie up, Markie goes back to business as usual. One evening, with a different group of poker players, Markie lets it drop that he robbed his own poker game. Nobody retaliates, but Johnny Amato decides if he doesn’t rob Markie’s new set-up that somebody will beat him to it. Frankie isn’t so sure about the wisdom of Amato’s strategy. Amato assures Frankie that everybody will remember Markie’s early treachery and the real hoodlums will get away scot-free with about $50-thousand. Frankie and his wisecracking, heroin-shooting, Australian pal, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn of “Knowing”), burst in on Markie’s poker game and rob not only Markie but also his players. Frankie wields an incredible, double-barreled, sawed off shotgun with the barrels cut so far back that you can see the shells with their green crimping sticking out. No sooner than they hold up the game and escape, the mob in the anonymous city where the action unfolds imports a thug, Cogan (Brad Pitt of “Fight Club”), to straighten the situation out. It seems that this second robbery has hurt the mob. Nobody wants to gamble for fear they will be held up. Cogan and a mob attorney, Driver (Richard Jenkins of “The Cabin in the Woods”), arrange the details and the pay-offs. Of course, nothing goes according to plan for Cogan. He hires an out-of-town torpedo, Mickey (James Gandolfini of “True Romance”), to whack Johnny Amato because Amato knows Cogan. Again, Cogan has neither the patience nor the desire to watch Amato plead for his life before he blows his head to smithereens.
The late George V. Higgins captured the grimy underbelly of the criminal world in his 26 or so novels. He shocked critics with his use of profanity. Like Tarantino, Higgins possessed a droll sense of humor. Higgins’ characters uttered the F-word as often as Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster did in “Scarface.” Dominik has transferred “Cogan’s Trade” to the big-screen with enviable fidelity to the source material. “Killing Them Softly” is one of the rare exceptions to the rule where the movie isn’t as good as the novel. Sure, some things must have bit the editing room floor, but the film never wears out its welcome. When he isn’t faithfully duplicating Higgins’ irreverent dialogue, Dominik proves that he is a genuinely gifted director. He shows what it is like for a heroin addict to carry on a conversation. Furthermore, the little touches distinguish “Killing Them Softly;” you’ve never see a car door shut the way that Dominik depicts it. Using television news clips from politicians during the 2008 Wall Street debacle, Dominik compares the criminal tendencies of Wall Street with hoodlums. Nothing about “Killing Them Softly” is delicate, but its sense of irony will have you rolling in the aisles.