CANNES – “I like to kill them softly,” Brad Pitt rumbles midway through Andrew Dominik’s efficiently blood-dampened thriller, his thumb and forefinger taking a rare vacation from the trigger to indulge in some hitman-Zen chin-stroking. “From a distance, too far away for feelings.” It’s the most immediately quotable line in a screenplay knotted with knowingly flavorful dialogue, and not just because it inadvertently supplies the film with its title, changed late in the game from “Cogan’s Trade” — the well-regarded 1974 pulp novel by George V. Higgins at its source.
Rather, it’s the line that most neatly encapsulates the poised pop poetry and, thanks especially to its eventual eponymic status, the on-the-nose emphases of “Killing Them Softly” as a whole, its musical connotations handily underlining the film’s scuffed-suede 1970s textures into the bargain. (Make no mistake: Dominik may have ostensibly updated Higgins’s story to the present — or rather, the not-yet-unpacked period of 2008 — but his melancholic-chic tone here, modulated to just the desired degree of rawness, is all Roberta Flack and no Lauryn Hill.) What it doesn’t evoke, however, is the filmmaking itself. Nothing in this coldly enjoyable and relentlessly classy genre trip is killed softly at all: not the broken-bone crunch of the sound design, not the uproariously ripe work of its dream supporting ensemble and certainly not Dominik’s bewilderingly literal makeover of Higgins’s genre runaround into a portentous essay on capitalist failings in cusp-of-Obama America.
Between its hat-in-hand referencing of the output of such tough-guy stylists as Michael Mann and William Friedkin, its balletically orchestrated explosions of the red stuff and, of course, that cred-boosting Cannes Competition berth, it seems inevitable that collective critical shorthand will come to label “Killing Them Softly” this year’s “Drive,” but those already forging the connection seem to be missing a crucial rift in the films’ sensibilities.
Where Nicolas Winding Refn’s kandy-kolored fast-car fantasia was actively, even abrasively proud of the fact that it had nothing going on upstairs — that it was about nothing so much as the movies themselves — “Killing Them Softly” doesn’t miss a single moment to tell us how much more is on its mind than its nasty little kill-list narrative and expert, storm-colored styling. Dominik purposefully announces that the film is About Things as early as the disorienting opening title sequence, blunt blackouts slicing its establishing shot of a young hoodlum sauntering through concretest Orleans, with archive audio of yet-to-be President Barack Obama announcing his plans for social and economic reform forming the broken soundtrack. A glimpse of an election campaign billboard in the background assures us that Obama’ voice is no incidental atmospheric presence: whatever unsavory gangster carnage lies ahead in the 100-odd minutes to come, it’s a safe bet that it’ll reflect on the still-festering wounds of Bush’s capitalist America, and whether or not any significant help has been at hand in the intervening Obama presidency. There will be blood. Oh, and there will be Metaphors.
As an opening gambit, this is ballsy and forthright enough to hold skepticism at bay for the film’s vastly entertaining opening act, which teasingly delays the arrival of star Brad Pitt’s hired-killer protagonist to immerse us in the wry foolery of his eventual targets. The wiry opening-credits figure turns out to be Frankie (Scoot McNairy, unrecognizably nasal and nervous after his “Monsters” breakthrough), a dumb miscreant recruited by Johnny (Vincent Curatola), a heavy in Tony Soprano leisurewear, to execute a mob poker-game heist that will frame Ray Liotta’s rival boss as the culprit. Joining Frankie for the ride is walking-bedsore Australian junkie Russell, deliciously played by Ben Mendelsohn in a manner that suggests his “Animal Kingdom” brute somehow faked his death, escaping across the Pacific on a raft of matchsticks and meth.
Frankie and Russell’s deadbeat chemistry as they shoot the breeze about girls, drugs and goat-fucking is so grimly engaging that it’s rather a shame when they actually have to set the plot in motion by pulling off the heist, whereupon the film’s dour political agenda comes once more to the fore. This time it’s outgoing President Bush who gets an inadvertent cameo, spouting his bullish belief in the American economy via a TV screen as the dirty rob the dirty, the irony almost too thick to qualify as such. It’s here, followed by the wincingly obvious musical cue that accompanies the introduction of Brad Pitt’s inverse law-keeper — Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” possessed of the lyric, “And behold, a white horse” — that Dominik’s thematic directness reads less brazen and more tone-deaf, a surprising miscalculation from a director whose previous film, the impossibly lovely anti-Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” erred on the side of the opaque.
Pitt’s arrival actually signals a downturn in narrative momentum, as his predictable picking-off of hapless lowlifes comes accompanied by a series of doomily philosophical if wittily written two-character exchanges about the general nothingness of everything, with yet more election-year references underlining its nihilistic political surtext. It’s crisper and punchier than its talkiness might suggest — again, unexpected after the luxuriant dawdling of “Jesse James” — but its one-note pessimism is a mite wearing. Compensation comes in the many-headed form of the film’s untethered male supporting players, for whom Pitt’s blandly menacing lead turn acts as an effective shock absorber: alongside Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini takes best-in-show honors as a fellow hitman gone grossly to seed, but Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard and Richard Jenkins all maximize their minimal screen time.
This distasteful, wholly male company of thieves get more sheen than they deserve from Dominik’s expectedly immaculate mise-en-scène, their deaths dignified by somewhat derivative slow-motion bullet aerobics, the exquisite spray of blood and glass accompanied by the kind of ironically genteel music choices (“Love Letters,” “Paper Moon”) none of these guys would make themselves.
Working in an infinite palette of slate, gifted Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Bright Star”) isn’t required to conjure the doll’s-house beauty Roger Deakins created for “Jesse James,” settling instead on a more grubbily gorgeous urban aesthetic that supports the film’s narrative and stylistic nods to the hard-edged, masculine America of the 1970s, evident too in such details as Pitt’s slimy pompadour and safari-cut leather jacket. Indeed, were it not for the discreet presence of cellphones and the ceaseless hammering of the 2008 electoral context, it’d be easy to assume the film is located in the 1974 of Higgins’s novel. Quite how Dominik’s split instincts of period homage and contemporary allegory are intended to serve each other is hard to gauge: “Killing Them Softly” pleases as an exercise in both surface style and tangy verbiage, but it’s the rare genre entertainment one wishes would think a bit less.
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