Killing Them Softly, the new crime caper thriller from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford), is set in 2008, during the height of the panic over the U.S. financial collapse and the run-up to Barack Obama’s election. I mention this because you might miss that crucial bit of subtext if you’re not paying close attention to the excerpts from Obama’s election-night speech that are included during the jaggedly edited opening sequence. Or during the centerpiece heist sequence. Or five minutes later when someone has the car radio on. Or pretty much every time anyone in this movie is listening to a radio or watching a television.
Because Andrew, buddy, pal, c’mon: We get it already. We understand that you’re turning your adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade — full of low-lifes, hired killers, and an unseen corporatized criminal hierarchy — into some kind of a metaphor for the malfeasance that led up to the Great Recession, and the nature of the response to it. It’s clear from the crime committed by Markie (Ray Liotta), who arranged to steal from the card game he runs. That in turn inspires a copycat crime by small-time crook Johnny (Vincent Curatola), who brings in an old acquaintance, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), to do the actual dirty work. It’s clear from the interaction between Jackie (Brad Pitt), a no-nonsense hired killer, and the businesslike representative (Richard Jenkins) of the crime bosses by whom Jackie’s been hired to deal with whoever stole from them. And man oh man is it clear from the incessant intrusion of the voices of George Bush, Barack Obama, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, etc. etc. etc.
The damned shame of it is that, for a while anyway, Killing Them Softly has the makings of a uniquely down-and-dirty spin on familiar underworld material. Yes, the off-the-cuff conversations might have you expecting the latest in a 20-year lineage of post-Tarantino chatty/witty thugs, particularly in the pre-heist banter between Frankie and his accomplice/prison buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) about prison sex, among other things. McNairy’s a terrifically effective weasel, though, and the actual card-room robbery is a study in minimalist tension built entirely into reasonable behavior.
It’s even clear that Dominik had his story pointed in a direction that would have made a compelling thematic idea all on its own — the role of distance, whether physical or emotional, in being able to live with doing something terrible. Several solid dialogue sequences are built around this notion: a pair of goons fretting over beating up Markie because they don’t want to deal with pleading; Jackie bringing in a second killer (James Gandolfini) to deal with a target that Jackie knows personally; Frankie trying to avoid direct involvement in pointing Jackie towards Johnny. The film’s title is used as an almost absurdist suggestion that there’s a right way to destroy someone’s life — one that results in no stress on the conscience of the destroyer.
But that’s not good enough for Dominik, who churns out the background-noise references to the meltdown pretty much any time there’s a moment of dead air, leading up to a climactic speech by Pitt that turns into something more pointed in its contemporary-relevance-message-delivering than anything that’s been similarly criticized in Lincoln. The ham-handedness extends to Dominik’s visual choices, including an extended bit from the heroin-addled Russell’s point of view, and a slow-motion killing that — even if intended as a juxtaposition with a couple of messier, less balletic murder sequences still to come — cries look-at-me without justifying itself. And when it feels as though the filmmaker isn’t completely in control of his material, the discursive bits, like a flashback to a failed attempt to burn a stolen car, wind up seeming completely pointless.
Killing Them Softly winds and pirouettes around a dozen different notions in a way that makes it clear that Dominik had something richly cynical at the core of his film. But he doesn’t trust the audience to put the pieces together, leaving a frustrating tale that, just in case you missed it, is set in 2008 when everyone was greedy.