“Very few guys know me.” Uttered by Brad Pitt as gangster enforcer Jackie, these five words make for a terrifying threat—and a great movie line. And there’s plenty more where that came from in writer-director Andrew Dominik’s script for Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller that plays comedic in the moment but dark, bleak and fiendishly stylish in retrospect—all of Dominik’s visual and aural flair centers on the film’s most violent moments to a soundtrack of political broadcasts. A half decade after the gorgeous Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director and star reunite for another period gangster movie of sorts. Based on George V. Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly is set during the 2008 American election, when presidential candidate Barack Obama was firing up supporters with rhetoric of hope while President George W. Bush managed the economic crisis.
Two low-level crooks—creaky-voiced Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his Australian junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn)—knock off a backroom card game with the idea, hatched by low-level mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), that dealer Markie (Ray Liotta) will get the blame. He does, but only partially. The powers-that-be—unseen, unnamed and unorganized—tap Jackie (Pitt) to take care of the situation so their gambling can continue, and he decides Markie has to go, if only for appearances.
That doesn’t mean Johnny, aka “Squirrel,” Frankie and Russell are off the hook. Since Jackie’s met Squirrel before, and he’s not interested in dealing with the “touchy-feely” aspects of assassinating someone you know, he flies in New York Mickey (James Gandolfini at his hot-mess best) to do the job, but it soon becomes clear that Mickey, depressed and drunk, isn’t up for the task, and Jackie must take matters into his own hands. All along the way, he’s stymied by “them,” a mysterious criminal consortium that leads by committee and acts through a buttoned-up middleman (Richard Jenkins), and while the financial crisis blares, literally, on TV and talk radio, Jackie alone acts swiftly and decisively to rescue an underground economy failing from lack of regulation.
The constant background political chatter can start to feel overbearing, but perhaps that’s part of Dominik’s point. Likewise, some of his dialogue scenes go on a bit long, particularly between Jackie and Mickey, but Killing Them Softly is, in part, a character study, and besides, can you really cut away from Gandolfini discussing the, ahem, assets of “a young Jewish girl who’s hooking”? Dominik also takes his time with the snap, crackle and pop of Markie’s unceremonious beating by his own enforcers and his slow-motion demise, during which raindrops ting like a triangle, glass tinkles like chimes, and bullets thud like a bass drum.
Killing Them Softly doesn’t kill softly at all. Dominik’s themes are meted out rather heavy-handedly, and the violence within is brutal and bloody, if beautiful in its own way.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola
Release Date: Nov. 30, 2012