Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s third feature, Killing Them Softly, stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a mean-as-sin hit man with a cynical streak as long as his '72 Cadillac. A no-nonsense enforcer, Jackie is called in to tend to a set of events that have all but shut down the city’s criminal economy: three crooks—young, dumb Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), with the support of Johnny (Vincent Curatola, who was Johnny Sack on The Sopranos)—have robbed a mafia-owned poker game presided over by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).
In a mob lawyer’s Lexus, Jackie is briefed on the robbery and forms a game plan: find a fall guy, kill him, and get the criminal economy flowing again. To this end, Jackie brings in degenerate hit man Mickey (Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini) who, apart from whacking and boozing, specializes in gratuitously abusing those in the service industry and being the least classy guy in the room (“I haven’t had a real piece of ass since Florida”). When things don’t go according to plan, though, Jackie is left with a bigger mess than he bargained for.
Based on George V. Higgins’s pulpy 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly has a killer soundtrack on which the Velvet Underground and Johnny Cash feature prominently. As in his lauded 2007 effort, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik pays as much attention to soundscape as to visuals, putting the film’s chromatic and sonic modulations into an intricate dialogue. Yet the previous film’s amorphous visual charms are largely lacking from Killing Them Softly, for which Dominik was given a much freer hand (The Assassination of Jesse James languished on the cutting table for over a year while he and the studio haggled over the finished product).
Compared with Roger Deakins’s approach in The Assassination of Jesse James, which included a whole lot of sublime ponderous lingering on barren landscapes, Killing Them Softly DP Greg Fraser (Let Me In, Snow White and the Huntsman) takes a more economical approach. The resultant pleasures are direct and satisfying, but also shallower and sparser. Most impressive, Dominik and Fraser render the film’s violent scenes such that the profound trauma—both physical and psychological—born of these acts is communicated with a kind of immediacy and frankness very rarely seen in cinema (if ever).
All of this is wicked fun, but Dominik also has greater, arguably ill-calibrated ambitions. Co-starring with Pitt and Gandolfini are George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whose faces appear on television screens and whose voices are beamed into the film's diegesis, talking TARP, economic free fall, and American exceptionalism. Dominik, it seems, is hell-bent on connecting the collapse of the criminal economy in the film with that of the world financial system in 2008. None of this really coheres, but Pitt and Gandolfini give such satisfying performances that the film ends up revolving around them, anyway.
Inflected by the heteroclite influences of Tarantino, Scorsese, Malick, Guy Ritchie, Brechtian distantiation effects, and the aesthetics of video game violence—from which the film’s lurid, revolting, and deeply impressive murder scenes seem to take their inspiration—Killing Them Softly feels like an important stepping-stone for Dominik. He has talent to spare, but Killing Them Softly is only one more stop along his way, not his destination.