Review: ‘Killing Them Softly’ uses Brad Pitt as a blunt instrument

CANNES – Andrew Dominik’s last film, “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” was, to put it kindly, divisive.  You can count me on the side of the folks who thought it was a gorgeous, poetic look at an American West that may not have ever truly existed, and the legends that stood astride it in its sunset years.  The score alone would qualify it as a fairly major work of film art for me, and when I revisited the film about four days before flying out for this year’s festival, I found myself smitten all over again.

With “Killing Me Softly,” Dominik appears to have zagged when everyone expected a zig, and this lean, mean, cynical little crime film, adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins, is a stylish delight, but perhaps not what many viewers will expect.  Brad Pitt is obviously the biggest name in the film, and his work as Jackie Cogan is great.  But he doesn’t appear in the film nearly as much as some of his lesser-known co-stars like Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, who both rip it up playing low-level criminal dummies who are enticed into a job by The Squirrel, played by Vince Curatola.  If you’re a “Sopranos” fan, you’d know Curatola immediately as Johnny “Sack,” and it’s interesting seeing him show up in a key role in the same film as James Gandolfini, who contributes a lovely supporting turn as a washed-up hitman who’s too busy whoring and drinking to actually pull a trigger.

I love crime fiction, and George V. Higgins certainly wrote some great examples of the genre.  An earlier adaptation of his work, “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” is a marvelous effort at capturing his voice, and it’s very effective.  “Cogan’s Trade,” the source material for this film, was written in the mid-’70s, and it’s a nice grimy little ride, but Dominik had something different in mind when he decided to adapt it.  His script updates the action to that moment in recent history when banks collapsed, when Bush left office, and when America voted Obama in for his first term.  He uses the basic bones of the Higgins novel to hammer home one point, and while some might see the film as too overt, sometimes I’m okay with a blunt instrument if it’s wielded properly.  The film puts to bed the lie that Americans are a community, that we all care for each other, and that we are in any way united these days.  And if that sentence bothers you, then chances are Dominik’s film will drive you crazy.

Johnny Amato, aka The Squirrel, brings in Frankie (Scoot McNairy) on a potential score, and in turn, Frankie brings in his friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who is a heroin-using dunce.  Frankie’s not the brightest guy, but he’s got a certain savvy about him that makes him seem like a guy you’d trust with something tricky.  Russell, on the other hand, is practically a big blinking stop sign with feet, a total screw-up.  The Squirrel’s nervous because he’s got a perfect job figured out, and he doesn’t want anything to go wrong.

Seems that Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is a guy who runs a card game for the mob.  A lot of money moves through his game, and a few years back, Markie arranged for the game to get robbed.  He played dumb about it until enough time had gone by, and then he couldn’t resist telling his friends that he’d done it.  The mob gave him a pass because everyone’s fond of Markie, but that seed of doubt has been planted, and The Squirrel figures if they rob his game, he’ll get the blame, and they’ll be able to disappear, splitting up as much as $50,000 for one night’s work.

The robbery itself is a great little set piece by Dominik, not because it’s big or elaborate, but because it perfectly captures that sense of adrenalized fear that hits when you’re doing something dangerous and crazy.  It is tense, even when it’s going right, because there are so many moving parts to the game that anything could happen.  Once they pull it off, suspicion does fall on Markie immediately, but Frankie and Russell aren’t smart enough to keep things secret, and once a nameless middle-man for the mob, played by the great Richard Jenkins, is on the case, it’s just a matter of time.  He’s the one who brings in Jackie, Pitt’s character, and he’s the one who tells Jackie to sort things out whatever it takes.

The film is stylish and beautifully crafted, and in scene after scene, Dominik ladles it on, whether with great soundtrack choices or with remarkable camera moves and bold ideas about how to shoot the flurries of violence that punctuate the picture.  And while it may seem at first that the overt message about America suggested by the moment in time when the film is set doesn’t directly tie into the crime story, it eventually becomes clear that this is a world in which no one, especially institutions, has anyone else’s best interests at heart.  Each of these characters is alone in the world, constantly disappointed by the actions and the ethics of others, and it’s obvious that this eats at Jackie in particular.  He wants to believe in things like honor and trust and friendship, and he wants to believe that he’s the sort of guy who keeps things at a distance, who doesn’t let the dirt of the world into his heart.  But little by little, Jackie gets more and more blood on his hands until eventually it’s up to his elbows, and there’s no one left on his side but himself.  Pitt’s anguish is muted at first, but he expertly reveals how this rot is eating away at Jackie, while Dominik shows us how the rot eats away at the larger nation around him.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is excellent, and there are some scenes here that film students should look at and break down and try to absorb as lessons in how to capture an image or a moment.  It’s not pretty, and it doesn’t romanticize this world at all.  Far from it.  Instead, Dominik is careful to rub our nose in some of the worst things in the film, making sure he shows that death is ugly and visceral and sudden in many cases.  This isn’t as ambitious on the surface as the last time Dominik collaborated with Pitt, but “Killing Them Softly” is sincere and superbly made, and it touches a real nerve.

“Killing Them Softly” opens September 21, 2012.