A crime novel from the 1970s might seem an odd choice for material for writer-director Andrew Dominik, whose last effort, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was a slow, languid, two-and-a-half-hour anti-western art film. But, in many ways, the two films are about the same thing: bad men explored as real people.
Brad Pitt starred as Jesse James, and he's back to play another complicated bad guy in Killing Them Softly, the adaptation of George Higgins' book about a professional enforcer whose services are required when business-as-usual goes awry.
Pitt's character, Jackie Cogan, is called in when two ex-cons, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), hold up a mob-protected poker game at the behest of Squirrel (Vincent Curatola). Their plan isn't great, but they have one angle—the guy who runs the card game, Markie (Ray Liotta), staged the same robbery years ago, so they're hoping all eyes will be on him. Eyes are on him, and that's bad news for Markie, but the mob still wants Jackie to find out for sure who's responsible and take care of business.
Pitt has matured so much as an actor, and he makes this role almost look too easy. What he's doing isn't easy, but he's so good that you almost forget he's really working. Jackie's like a big cat, or an urban predator, immediately grasping every facet of the situation, completely in control of every interaction he has. It's a terrific part, and Pitt inhabits him with a detached professionalism that overshadows those blue eyes and chiseled cheekbones. Jackie's the one person who knows what has to be done, despite being surrounded by bureaucrats, loose cannons and guys who can't handle the job. Mickey (James Gandolfini), an aging hit man brought in to help Jackie, but who simply no longer has the necessary chops, falls into this last category.
Jackie's professionalism and ethics are important because Dominik uses the story as a metaphor for the nation's financial woes. Every TV you see in the film, which is set just four years ago, shows either Obama or Bush essentially espousing the same talking points about the stimulus package. The mob's stimulus package comes in the form of Jackie, who's forced to sort out a different financial fiasco—the poker-game robbery—that was also caused by greed and a lack of personal accountability.
The thing is, though, despite the soon-to-come whackings over money, Killing Me Softly isn't your standard mob movie. Like Jesse James, it's a talky picture, but this one isn't nearly as long or slow. There's violence, to be sure, and it's unpleasantly disturbing when it isn't slowed down and oddly beautiful.
Dominik makes artistic creations, and if you're looking for a bang-bang-shoot-shoot-fuggetaboutit picture, you've come to the wrong place. But if you want a marbled, muscled, cerebral film, you're in luck, and if you want to see Pitt swagger his way through some tough dialogue, you're in for a treat. Killing Them Softly is solid, far more accessible than Jesse James.
It's Jackie who says, "America is not a country; it's a business," and it's hard to disagree with him. That said, you'll have to decide if you buy Dominik's contention—that the Wall Street jerks responsible for the financial domino effect are equivalent to a couple of desperate strongarm bandits holding up an illegal poker game—because it sometimes feels a bit of a stretch.
There's one big difference: Those Wall Street guys are still rich and lighting up cigars with bailout money, because they don't have a guy like Jackie Cogan gunning for them. Too bad. Because from what we've seen, that's what it would take to keep them honest.
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