“Killing Them Softly” is the new movie by New Zealand director Andrew Dominik, who made one of the best films of the past decade, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
Brad Pitt, who played James, gives another commanding performance in this drama as Jackie, a hit man brought in to clean up a messy situation.
Three not-too-bright criminals (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Vincent Curatola) decide to rip off a mob-protected card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), intending to pin the job on Trattman.
A mob man (Richard Jenkins) meets with Jackie to decide how to set things right. Jackie brings in his colleague Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help, but he turns out to be unreliable.
So Jackie must do the jobs himself, though he prefers not to get too personal with his targets. He likes “killing them softly.”
Dominik, who adapted a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, sets the action in 2008, during the financial crisis and presidential election. Television broadcasts of speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama attempt to underline the movie’s cynical themes of corporate power vs. community.
As Jenkins’ character complains that the Mafia is run by committee and that it’s hard to get anything done, it becomes clear that America itself has the same problem.
Shot in New Orleans, the film has a ruined, gutted look that highlights its themes. Yet Dominik sometimes lightens the mood with playful flashbacks and ironic uses of pop music.
Clearly, Dominik wants to elevate “Killing Them Softly” into something greater than a “mere” crime film. Liotta and Gandolfini’s presence bring
“Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” to mind, and fans of Higgins will be familiar with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Parts of the movie even recall “The French Connection” and “Pulp Fiction.”
Even though “Killing Them Softly” isn’t particularly innovative for the genre and its social commentary isn’t as deep or profound as Dominik aims, it has plenty to admire.
Dominik has a wonderful ear for dialogue. Many scenes, simply of characters talking, are mesmerizing. The settings reveal a poetic griminess, and the violence is quietly, brutally striking.
One standout segment replicates the point of view of a junkie nodding off during a heroin fix.
It’s not easy to stand out in the crowded crime genre, but “Killing Them Softly” confidently ranks as a minor classic.