Killing Them Softly uncomfortably combines two different movies. On one hand, director Andrew Dominik deals with criminal propriety, and how lowlifes are capable of feelings. At the same time, Dominik also introduces an allegory about politics, big finance, and their role in the Great Recession. The former is a terrific dark comedy – there are long stretches of bizarre, profanity-laced dialogue – but the latter is about as subtle as a gun to the face.
In the outskirts of New Orleans during fall 2008, not even the gangsters can escape from the presidential stump speeches. With Senator Obama droning in the background, Johnny (Vincent Curatola) presents his stupid idea Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a young thief. Johnny wants Frankie to knock over an underground poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). There is a weird reason they may not get caught: Markie robbed his own game before, so the higher ups will assume he’s repeating the same mistake. Along with his partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a vulgar Australian with a hygiene problem, Frankie robs the game without much fuss. This gets the attention of Jackie (Brad Pitt), a mob enforcer who negotiates the thieves’ comeuppance with a mid-level functionary (Richard Jenkins). Jackie takes his time with Frankie and the others since he knows their deaths are inevitable.
There is a strange social contract in his particular world of organized crime. Jackie, Markie, and others know reprisals – shown in grim detail – are necessary, but when it comes to negotiating the particulars, emotions and ethics have a weird way of intersecting. At one point, Jackie argues that a quick death is more humane than a beating followed by a quick death, and the matter-of-fact manner way Pitt handles the debate is darkly funny. The introduction of Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hedonistic assassin, is also an opportunity for Domnik to explore psychological deficiencies men like this must have. Mickey is not as reliable as he used to be, and Jackie does not take it personally when his friend falls off the deep end. Many movie criminals are flawed men, but Killing Them Softly digs deep about how deficiencies might invade their professional lives, for lack of a better term.
The strange thing is how Dominik combines subtle character study with the overwrought symbolism. Yes, there are parallels between Wall Street and organized crime, but Dominik is not content with mere suggestion. He wants to shove the relationship down the audience’s throat: every time we see or hear something about Wall Street or the election – which is often – Dominik practically shouts, “Do you GET what I’m trying to SAY here?” from behind the camera. Pitt delivers the final lines of dialogue flawlessly, except their meaning is undermined by the constant strive for deeper meaning. The musical cues are similarly obvious. Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” introduces Brad Pitt’s character, and The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” plays when another shoots up. Audiences are smarter than Dominik gives them credit.
Allegory notwithstanding, I can see why so many actors would be drawn to this material. The meandering dialogue gives them a chance to develop their characters laterally, and all the bullshitting is more fun than simply declaring motives. Pitt’s tough nonchalance is similar to his character from Inglourious Basterds, and here it anchors the action well. Most of the other actors played tough guys before, and the rich script only deepens their performances. The real stand-out is Scott McNairy. He’s an indie actor who made a name for himself with movies like In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Monsters, but here he’s terrific as a nervy criminal who is smart enough to handle a robbery, yet too dumb to handle its consequences.
Dominik adapted Killing Them Softly from a novel by George V. Higgins, a crime novelist and former lawyer who also provided the source material for 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Starring Robert Mitchum, it’s another thriller where a closely-knit group of thugs betray each other in the friendliest way possible. Coyle is a good primer for Killing them Softly: if it leaves you craving more hard-boiled dialogue, then you’re enough of a genre fan so that the allegory will not matter. Between the heavy-handed metaphors, there is a stylish, nasty noir itching to get out.