Courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon
The tag line on the poster for writer-director Andrew Dominik’s crime thriller “Killing Them Softly” reads as follows: “In America, you’re on your own.”
An alternate tag line might read thusly: “Brad Pitt: Charming even while he’s shooting people in cold blood.”
Indeed, the perfectly coiffed actor and his facial hair turn in impressive star performances in this violent exploration of corruption and murder’s emotional toll. The movie proves engrossing and occasionally quite disturbing despite the lack of a recognizable structure.
Dominik, who previously directed Pitt in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” crafts an unexpectedly vivid critique of American capitalism, ironically interweaving footage from 2008’s presidential campaign speech to subtly comment on America’s flawed economic system. Concurrently, Dominik derives tension and shock value from a plot filled with crimes of many colors.
As the film opens, two thieves (Scott McNairy, “Argo,” and Ben Mendelsohn, “The Dark Knight Rises”) and their dimwitted employer (Vincent Curatola, “The Sopranos”) upset the New Orleans crime scene’s apple cart when they rob a mob-protected card game, inciting the fury of the game’s organizer Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, “Bad Karma”). Pitt’s Jackie Cogan is a hit man assigned by the reserved “Driver” (the reliably excellent Richard Jenkins, “The Cabin in the Woods”) to “take care of” the two thieves, aided by his troubled former partner Mickey (James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos”). Plentiful blood, tears and profanities ensue.
The film is largely dialogue-driven with bursts of discomfiting graphic violence often arriving at unexpected moments and depicted in explicit detail. Dominik lightens the mood and generates strong irony by juxtaposing the death scares with eerily cheerful music, an echo of Cogan’s eponymous policy of killing his victims “softly,” without emotional attachment. This device simultaneously strengthens the film’s themes while making for a less uncomfortable viewing experience.
Despite the brisk 94-minute running time, the plot frequently grinds to a halt, allowing the characters an opportunity to converse and argue extensively. The absence of abundant plot mechanics renders the film slightly disjointed, suggesting that Dominik occasionally indulges his obvious aesthetic prowess at the expense of narrative momentum. But the film overcomes occasional dull moments to demonstrate well-ratcheted suspense coupled with subtle political musings.
As mentioned, Pitt commands the screen with his cynical character, who manages to remain sympathetic on the strength of the beloved actor’s unending charm, familiar looks and roguish wit. His performance is quietly impressive rather than obvious or grandiose. Meanwhile, Gandolfini is devastating and soulful as the shameless alcoholic with too much power and not enough control, and McNairy and Mendelsohn make for an amusingly oblivious odd couple. In fact, the performances are satisfying down to the minor roles.
Perhaps “Killing Them Softly” should be praised most strongly for maintaining a potent sense of dark humor throughout. An overly solemn approach to this outsized crime story with a political tinge might have seemed overwrought. Thanks to the presence of a powerful leading man, sharp dialogue and an impressive aesthetic, “Killing Them Softly” commits few crimes.