It's strange for a brand-new film to already seem like a relic, but there is an undeniable air of datedness stinking up the new crime picture Killing Them Softly, one that hampers what might otherwise be an interesting little piece of showy filmmaking. As is, it's a heavy-handed if still somehow slight movie, one whose themes are only a little more hoary than some of its technical flourishes and gimmicks. It's designer cinema a few seasons too late.
Adapted from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade by the Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly concerns a circle of low-lifes lurching around a tattered American city that sounds a lot like Boston but looks exactly like post-storm New Orleans. We begin with two of the lowest of lives, Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), as they work out a plan to rob an underground poker game. Such a theft would normally be out of the question — you will get found out, you will get killed — except there's a twist: These guys and their overseer, Johnny (Vincent Curatola), they're interested in a card game that's already been robbed once before, and by the the guy who runs it, Markie (Ray Liotta). So the thinking is, if it gets robbed again, the shadowy guys running the bigger mob operation will assume it was Markie all over again, and then go after him. It's as perfect a crime as there is in this gray, rainy, and unfriendly place. Or at least they think it is.
The robbery itself goes smoothly enough, both for Frankie and Russell and for us. Dominik has filmed a tensely blunt and unadorned heist scene, and it's the film's true standout moment. Nothing particularly special or flashy happens, and really that's what makes it so good. We are expecting a bang or a burst that never comes, and somehow still we leave the robbery as rattled, or perhaps more so, as we might have been had there been an explosion of chaos and violence. So the guys get away with it that night, but they're soon right back in it: A methodical cleaner/hitman named Jackie (Brad Pitt) shows up and begins putting the pieces together and the caper picks up again. This isn't procedural stuff, though; the film isn't really concerned with the how of all the detective work, it's more about a fairly muddled philosophy and worldview, drawn out in a series of weary, sardonically despairing vignettes. In Killing Them Softly, Dominik wants to talk about nothing less than the decay of the American experiment — I think, anyway? Something something the economy? It's unclear.
What's clear is the horrifically faked billboard showing Barack Obama and John McCain that features prominently at the start of the film, head-bonkingly telegraphing to us that This Is About More Than A Poker Game. Dominik has not been shy in publicly dissecting his own shoddily crafted allegory, which goes something like this: This poker game is robbed because of lack of regulation and then everything goes to hell, and that is like the collapse of the American economy. So the reason we have that hideous billboard and clip after clip of George W. Bush and Obama and various other Capitol Hill bozos debating the bailout in the fall of 2008 is because that's how we know we're having a political discussion. There's something distinctly college-student-who-watched-The-Daily-Show-in-2009 about this conceit; it's obvious and overstated. There's too much showing and telling at work here, which makes the already thin metaphor seem even flimsier. All the clips and audio sound bites add an awfully literal quality to Dominik's late-to-the-game messaging, and suggest an arrogance or cocksuredness that is unbecoming. It's a misplaced arrogance, because at this point there's really nothing innovative or edgy about using found footage in crafty ways — unless you count those auto-tuning Gregory Brothers, who say more with a short song than is said throughout the entirety of these increasingly turgid 97 minutes.
I'd spend some time complaining about how all the real-life newsy bits distract from the story, except really there isn't much to distract from. Jackie has conversations with a representative of the guys in charge, a slacks-wearing upper-middle class lawyer type played by Richard Jenkins. Jackie has conversations with a fellow hitman brought into assist on the job, a self-destructive drunk played by James Gandolfini. Jackie goes after Markie, even though he knows he didn't do it. Jackie goes after the guys he knows did do it. Movie ends. That's basically all we're working with here, which means it's up to Dominik and crew to fill the gaps of a simple story with interesting details and nuances. Last year's terrific crime picture Drive had a similar narrative simplicity that was elevated to urban-cool art by Nicolas Wending Refn's moody stylization and elegant set pieces. Dominik goes for the same kind of effect here, but lots of his trills and runs feel over-rehearsed and, worse, derivative. We get an unnecessary slow-motion sequence as a character is shot in his car, blood and glass kaleidoscoping while an old-timey tune plays. There's a hazy drug sequence made of bright lights and warped sound. The opening credits are an anxious howl of ambient noise and that dreaded found-footage stuff. It's all very composed and artful and all that, but it somehow never coheres to the rest of the film. It's a bad match, with the story feeling faint and unsubstantial and the camera trickery and audio cues playing as arbitrary embellishments. There's no point to any of this, which is maybe the movie's point, but I doubt it was Dominik's.
At least the acting is solid. Pitt and Dominik made something lovely together with the underappreciated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and do good work again here. With a spiky pompadour and a constant plume of cigarette smoke curling out of his mouth, Pitt's Jackie is a smooth guy who's sick of the world trying to rough him up. He's smarter than pretty much everyone around him and, for a hitman, seems pretty reasonable. But he's let things get to him over time. There's an undercurrent of anger and meanness in him that fills his scenes with suspense. Might he lash out and do something horrific? We know he's capable of it, and spend a lot of the film waiting nervously for him to deliver. Gandolfini makes a fine, shambling, porcine mess, making the act of drinking a martini look as gruesome as self-flagellation. He's unfortunately not given enough to do, it but his pair of scenes are some of the most engaging in the film. That Gandolfini doesn't really end up mattering much to the story is another example of Dominik's inability to graft his more artistic inclinations to the bones of the film he's making. Ray Liotta plays a more central role in the tale, and he's good as ever as a likable wiseguy creep who's ultimately as sniveling as he is sharp. Would that these three guys had been given more to work with, and were less muffled by the filmmaker's constant editorializing, we might have had something significant here. But as they stand, the performances are brief and enticing bits of traction in an otherwise slippery film. There's some good stuff here, but it's all lost in the junkyard rubbish of Andrew Dominik's repurposed America.