Andrew Dominik is at home among thieves and killers. The New Zealander has made three films, and they’ve all been crime thrillers: the terrifying 2001 Australian entry Chopper, followed by the gorgeous and lethally dull 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and now the fitfully entertaining Killing Them Softly. Other filmmakers churn out crime thrillers like they’re so much sausage, but Dominik takes time and great care over them. That explains his movies’ exquisite craftsmanship and also their regrettable attempts at philosophy.
The movie begins with a plot by three idiots — a boss named Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), an underling named Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Frankie’s Australian junkie friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) — to rob a high-stakes poker game run by the mob in Boston. To deal with them, the mob brings in sharp-witted hit man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt).
The story is based on Cogan’s Trade, a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins. The movie updates the time to 2008 and sets the criminal hijinks against the year’s financial crises. Here’s where the movie runs into trouble, as Cogan becomes a mouthpiece for amoral materialism, sneering at a speech by presidential candidate Barack Obama: “America’s not a community. It’s a business! It always has been. So fucking pay me.” I don’t mind Dominik being cynical about America. The problem is, his cynicism is cheap. What does this movie’s message boil down to, other than that America is a place of unbridled, rapacious greed? You could walk into any coffeehouse in the world and hear that same sentiment. More to the point, dozens of movies from The Godfather to Margin Call have critiqued American capitalism in more interesting and subtle ways. This film is just lame.
The movie is much better when it drops its pretensions. The card game robbery is a great piece of suspense, with the amateur thieves wearing dishwashing gloves and Frankie carrying a comical-looking yet highly dangerous sawed-off shotgun. Dominik skillfully reduces Higgins’ hard-boiled dialogue into great tasty chunks, like Russell telling Frankie a funny sex story or Cogan’s exchanges with a nameless bureaucratic middle man (Richard Jenkins) who gives the hit man his orders. The life of this movie isn’t in its overdone action sequences but rather in these scenes of criminals conducting business and hanging out. The climax comes in an exceptionally well-played scene as Cogan corners Frankie in a bar and calmly pressures the terrified crook into giving up Squirrel. Rather than look for larger meaning in the dealings of these desperate lowlifes, Dominik should just concentrate on capturing them in all their sweat-soaked life. That’s what he’s good at. And who knows? Maybe a critique of the world that produces them will just emerge by itself.
Killing Them Softly
Starring Brad Pitt. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on George V. Higgins’ novel. Rated R.