"America's not a country," Brad Pitt's character declares at the end of "Killing Them Softly." "It's just a business."
Those lines have a nice ring to them, and they're likely to be heavily quoted in reviews and marketing materials. But they're not nearly as deep as they might sound. And they don't offer a fresh perspective on the United States and the crisis in which it now finds itself.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik is under a different impression, however. He has adapted George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel "Cogan's Trade" as a parable of the 2008 financial crisis. It's a stretch, to put it mildly. Hit men demanding more for their kills than their clients would like to pay is an old story. One doesn't need the excuse of "recession prices" to justify such a plot point.
|'Killing Them Softly'|
|1.5 out of 4 stars|
|Stars: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini|
|Director: Andrew Dominik|
|Rated: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use|
|Running time: 97 minutes|
That failed metaphor is the only thing that might have held "Killing Them Softly" together, too. Dominik doesn't seem to know what sort of movie he wanted to make from the material. Sometimes its violence is ultraheightened, disgustingly real. Other times it's so stylized as to be barely felt.
With a cast including Pitt, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta, of course "Killing Them Softly" has its moments. But they're too few and far between to make this pretentious gangster film worth watching.
Pitt's Jackie is brought on the scene by a shadowy figure played by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins' character represents the mob, and they want Pitt to take care of the men who held up their card game -- and the guy who hosted the gambling, though they're pretty sure Markie (Ray Liotta) had nothing to do with it.
Markie had arranged for his own game to be held up before, which is what gives Johnny the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) the idea to hold it up again -- he figures Markie will take the fall. He gets a couple of younger guys to do the job: the sympathetic and gullible Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and an Australian wildcard, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). As usual with this sort of caper that can't go wrong, it does.
McNairy is the highlight here. He holds his own against Pitt, who doesn't have to do much to attract our attention on screen.
The film begins, in fact, with promise. "You ready to do this?" Frankie says to Russell as they're about to rob the mob. Russell is still trying to get a yellow dishwashing glove on his hand. Clearly, these guys are amateurs about to get in way over their heads. But when listening to Gandolfini talk about hookers becomes boring, you know you've got a problem.
The main one here is that this story really doesn't have anything to tell us about the financial crisis. And the way it tries is simply laughable. We're supposed to believe that every character in this film has the news on his car radio while he drives. It's preposterous, of course, but it's the only way Dominik can think of to make us listen endlessly to snippets of speeches from Bush, Obama and McCain. Most of us didn't enjoy listening to them the first time.