The crime drama “Killing Them Softly” from 2012 offers a jarring look at fringe mobsters and small-time losers. But the story, based on a gritty 1974 crime novel by George V. Higgins, only suffers from its cinematic updating.
While the tale would no doubt work as a fierce period piece from that earlier American recession caused by the oil crisis, the filmmakers have preferred to present a flimsy update to 2008, mainly relying on a grating leitmotif of sound bites from news coverage of that year’s presidential campaign to place the action in time. Unfortunately that technique comes across as obstreperous, especially on the heels of the most recent (and most expensive) presidential race.
Instead we get an uneven film marred in spots by four-year-old campaign speech snippets. Despite this thick slathering of time-stamped footage the rest of the movie, minus a few flat screen TVs and a cell phone, still has a deep 1970s feel to it.
The action in “Killing Them Softly” takes place amid the tired precincts surrounding Boston, in drab "old man" bars, an empty relic of a restaurant, and in and around gas guzzlers. Brad Pitt plays Jackie, a soft spoken mob hit man. But Pitt’s portrayal as an aloof enforcer is too elusive to truly connect to the audience. On the other hand, James Gandolfini, in a supporting role as a self-absorbed hit man turned alcoholic, steals the scenes he shares with Pitt. The kicked back cool of Pitt's character is no match for Gandolfini’s “all in” approach when it comes to his juicier role.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik frames the struggles of the small time crooks in this film against a broken-down America. Much of the film is expressionist, from the trope of showing characters walking down a narrow alley (destiny closing in), to using altered imagery to depict a character’s drugged state of mind. Original shot-framing of Jackie and his mob go-between, played by Richard Jenkins, during a front seat tête–à–tête in the latter's car serves to emphasize not only the rift between the two men but also the uncomfortable status of each within an organization that is evolving independently of them.
In an era when audiences have become inured to movie violence, which is so often depicted with cinematic grace, Dominik slaps a mean and startling brutality on the screen. In “Killing Them Softly” Jackie draws a bloody line connecting the choices made by the crooks who steal from the mob to the brutal consequences of those actions.
Director Dominik is also a godfather of suspense. When a caper unfolds too slowly the tension absolutely tortures because we know the robbers to be ill-prepared amateurs. Nor does “Killing Them Softly” always give the audience the expected payoff, instead it repeatedly breaks its own rhythm to keep viewers off-balance, like a small-time criminal living from score to score.
In the final scene, Jackie delivers a historically shallow rant in pundit-speak about “wine snob” Founding Fathers. It is an ill-conceived add-on by Dominik. To its credit that scene does end on a terse point that sums up the tale nicely. But it also tries lamely to link conceptually the narrative with the extra helpings of campaign sound bites used throughout the movie, and that is justed wasted effort.
*For a brilliant film version of an earlier Higgins novel that doesn’t thumb its nose at the book’s original setting, watch “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” from 1973, directed by Peter Yates, starring the great Robert Mitchum, and featuring a fine dramatic performance by Peter Boyle as “Dillon.”