‘Killing Them Softly’

In Killing Them Softly Brad Pitt's hitman moves in on targetSome wise guys conspire to knock over a mob-protected card game, an enforcer is called in and then another and finally a few people get whacked.

That about sums up what happens plot-wise in writer-director Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly.” But his real interest lies elsewhere.

Like Dominik’s last film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he’s out to score style points. You want Sam Peckinpah slo-mo bloodshed, he’ll give you the slowest and most beautifully wrought images you will ever associate with murder.

You want a drug trip, he’ll pull out all the stops in creating time, sound and visual disorientation.

You want Tarantino-esque dialogue between low-lifes, he’ll give you long stretches of dialogue discussing the attributes of whores, problems with the corporate structure within the mob and hard-nosed bargaining for wet work that make Democrats and Republicans look like wimps when it comes to negotiations.

Dominik does deliver though. One slo-mo hit on a guy in a car has windows shattering in exquisite patterns and the guy’s blood flowing from his head as bullet casings eject from the murder weapon. It’s a thing of sheer beauty on screen.

And lengthy conversations between enforcers, or one enforcer and a middle-man lawyer, or three criminals who really need to find a new profession are written with an uncanny ear for how these unwise wise guys talk.

In Killing Them Softly James Gandolfini's hitman drinks heavilyUnlike his previous film, these lengthy chats never bore and do bear listening to. For it is Dominik’s contention here that the business of crime is no different from any other business in capitalist America. And that the country is slowly losing its grip on how to do business efficiently.

To underscore this point, instead of a score, the background noise for the movie is the 2008 Presidential campaign along with President Bush’s announcements of the bailout of Wall Street.

Dominik bases his screenplay on an old Boston-mob novel by attorney/writer George V. Higgins (“The Friends of Eddy Coyle”). This he now sets in New Orleans, a city so ravaged by Katrina and the economy that empty, derelict buildings stand in mute silence to the gangland activity.

This symbolism is all a little too neat but it’s also hard to quarrel with Dominik. These wise guys do business with the same carelessness as Wall Street only not so many people get hurt.

Dominik has got a showy cast to do the heavy lifting starting with Brad Pitt as an out-of-town enforcer who likes to think of himself as a nice guy and prefers to kill people “softly,” from a distance.

When he realizes he knows one of the targets, he is sensitive enough to call in another hit man, played by James Gandolfini, even though it means losing money.

Ray Liotta brings along all his gangster-movie baggage to play the cynical guy running the card game while Richard Jenkins is his usual brilliant self as a frustrated middle-man stuck with ferrying orders back and forth in negotiations for the hits.

The problem here, Dominik insists, is that the New Orleans mob, like Wall Street, doesn’t operate with enough regulations. So no one takes any real responsibility and its top dogs get someone else to do their dirty work for them.

In Killing Them Softly Richard Jenkins' lawyer meets hitman in a barIs this any way to run a business?

The guys jacking the card game are real works of art, something Tarantino actually might be proud of. A dumb and dumber of the underworld, Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is a jumpy guy just out of stir and already looking for trouble.

He brings into the heist Ben Mendelsohn’s Russell, a Australian junkie whose brain has already fried and whose contribution to the annals of crime is pedigree dog stealing.

But they can’t be much dumber than the dry cleaner/ex-con who thought up the hair-brain scheme, Vincent Curatola’s Johnny Amato. Why on earth would he trust these idiots? Again, no damn regulations.

“Killing Them Softly” is more comic than dramatic although seldom the laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. Dominik works subtlety through his dialogue to allow each character to hang himself with his own words.

The film is cluttered with telling details such as Jenkins’ intense dislike for cigarette smoke or Gandolfini’s meltdown as he tips into instability or Pitt’s easy-going physicality that belies what he does for a living.

The murder scenes, not all in slow motion — in fact, some are appropriately abrupt even if you can see them coming — are staged for maximum impact to impress viewers with the maker’s cinematic dexterity.

These scenes have less to do with the film’s characters than the filmmaker’s status as an artist. Only he comes off as more poseur than auteur.

Dominik has the skill set, no doubt, to make a significant contribution to cinema. But too much artifice creeps into his films, too much self-conscious showing off for the sheer joy of demonstrating what he is capable of doing as opposed to laying out a compelling narrative.

“Killing Them Softly” is so much better than “Jesse James” that I’m inclined to give this one a pass and remain hopeful about Dominik’s career trajectory. The acting is all first rate and certain set pieces do demonstrate a love for cinematic effects.

Now if Dominik can put all this together with a strong narrative, perhaps one written by someone other than himself, he might have something.

There is, as noted, no musical score as such. Instead the film relies on a few songs, some going back to the country’s last Depression in the ’30s and others such as “Money (That’s What I Want)” that are a little too on the nose.

Opens: November 30, 2012 (The Weinstein Co.)

Production: Plan B, Chockstone Pictures

Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vincent Caratola, Slaine, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard

Director/screenwriter: Andrew Dominik
Based on the novel by: George V. Higgins

Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Anthony Katagas

Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Matt Butan, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna

Director of photography: Greig Fraser

Production and costume designer: Patricia Norris

Editor: Brian A. Kates

R rating, 97 minutes.