New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik's epic second film, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is one of the best and most ambitious American films of the new century. Dominik's new follow-up, Killing Them Softly, though an hour shorter and not historical in nature, is, in its own way, no less ambitious and no less suffused with Americana.
Based on Cogan's Trade, a crime novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is, on one level, a tightly wound, grimy little Boston crime story. Mid-level underworld operator Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) hatches a plan to knock over a mob-protected card game and frame the game's operator, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who is already viewed with suspicion. He hires a couple of young hoods: needy, nervous Frankie (Scooter McNairy), whom he trusts, and Frankie's ex-con pal, sweaty Aussie junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), whom he doesn't. The job comes off, and unseen mob bosses have their lawyer (Richard Jenkins) bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, Dominik's Jesse James), a fixer/enforcer/hit man to clean things up and get the games back and running.
Dominik works through the beats of this story with immense, at times overwhelming style: a staccato opening that introduces Frankie shuffling through a blasted urban landscape. A tense, patient heist sequence. A rain-splattered drive-by murder shot in nearly abstract super slow-motion. A heroin fix depicted as a point-of-view scene. A big introduction for Pitt, brought on to the tune of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." And Dominik has at his disposal a tremendously cast rogue's gallery of heavies and creeps that also includes James Gandolfini as a nihilistic lush of a would-be hitman and Gone Baby Gone's Slaine and veteran Sam Shepard as another tandem of enforcers.
But Dominik isn't content to tell a simple underworld story. He changes the time period of Higgins' 1974 novel to the fall of 2008 and plays it against the backdrop of the financial collapse and presidential election, which rings out via billboards, car-radio broadcasts, and bar television sets. And Dominik draws parallels throughout. The card game hit leads to an "economic collapse" in this little corner of the criminal underworld. Then-president Bush's public address assertion to "step in with dramatic action" rhymes with the deployment of Pitt's Cogan. Jenkins' mob lawyer laments the shaky "decision makers" who employ him. Murder comes cheap with "recession prices."
It becomes clear that Dominik is going for more than a genre movie but instead a nasty, cynical black comedy on American decline. It's awkwardly done at times, but Dominik — and, particularly, Pitt — bring text and subtext together at the end with a satisfying final snap.
Killing Them Softly
Opening Friday, November 30th