In an ugly economy, murder becomes the last beautiful act. That's the state of the nation in
Taking place in 2008, the film comes from the New Zealand-born, Australia-bred writer-director Andrew Dominik. He teamed with Pitt five years ago on "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Following that difficult but often magnificent elegy, which went nowhere in financial terms but already looks like a modern classic, Dominik had the devil's own time getting his next project together in Hollywood.
You can tell. Much of the dialogue in "Killing Them Softly" concerns financial difficulties experienced by contract killers as well as the shady characters employing them. At one point, conversing in the car where they conduct their meetings, Pitt's Jackie Cogan tells his overseer, played by Richard Jenkins, that he'd like to bring in a second assassin to help out. Jenkins' character replies: "They are not gonna OK anything major here." Surely this is a line Dominik heard in one studio executive's office or another.
There's a mob movie in there somewhere too. Dominik freely adapted the 1974 George V. Higgins novel "Cogan's Trade." It begins with a nervy idea for a robbery that, miraculously, works: Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny Sack on "The Sopranos") enlists a couple of addled punks (Scoot McNairy and
The stolen money is mob money, which means retribution must be exacted. Jackie, costumed for maximum '70s cool, sub-contracts some of the work to his old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini), an alcohol-soaked has-been with a thing for prostitutes. Much of this is familiar; most everything interesting in "Killing Them Softly" couldn't care less about the primary narrative line. This is a talkative picture, allowing time and space for comically preoccupied and quirkily pathetic exchanges between all sorts of strays and losers.
The title refers to a cliched romantic notion of Jackie's approach to his job — nice and easy, exemplified by a key killing depicted by Dominik as a gorgeous slowmotion blur of shattered glass, flying bullets and aesthetic perfection. A little of this creamy slaughter goes a long way. Some of the dialogue in "Killing Them Softly" bonks! you right on the schnozz. The thesis line, spoken by Jackie, couldn't be more direct in its opinion of a land on the verge of defaulting on everything in sight. "America," he says, "is not a country. It's a business." And Americans aren't making what they used to.
The atmosphere of fiscal panic is heightened by the way Dominik frames the action against news of the U.S. banks bailout of '08, as well as cable TV snippets of then-presidential campaigner