There’s a core of a really good movie inside the pale, pulpy flesh of “Killing Them Softly,” a neo noir by writer/director Andrew Dominik, based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade.”
Changing the novel’s Boston setting to New Orleans in 2008, the film starts with two young-ish low lifes (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) accepting an offer from a veteran low life (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a card sharks’ gathering and put the blame on game organizer Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta).
Of course, this gambit is not cool with the ruling mob and glacially laconic hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to dole out retribution. To help with the assignment, Jackie taps an old-timer assassin named Mickey (James Gandolfini) but bloated, broken-hearted Mick has problems of his own.
Dominik strikes a mood of cynical malaise, one that seems to stem from the country’s decline under the leadership of George W. Bush. Corporate America and the underworld, both big businesses, have much in common, we’re told several times. Gloomy, washed-out lighting and collages of carnage (cinematographer Greig Fraser impressively juxtaposes frenzied camerawork with slow motion) sustain the dour vibe as does the richly dark soundtrack.
But the thin story drags despite its dreadful, in-your-face violence. What unfolds, without much tension, is Jackie crossing off items on his to-do list. Still, Jackie is a character who is pretty compelling to watch. The title “Killing Them Softly” refers to Jackie’s professional style – he prefers to take his victims from a distance so as to avoid the stickiness (crying, begging, etc.) of a close-up killing – and Pitt effortlessly engages us every moment he’s on the screen.
Pitt’s brand of slow-burn intensity makes “Killing Them Softly” a showcase for his talent, whether or not that’s what the director had in mind (they worked together in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). Pitt is particularly well matched when paired with Gandolfini – the few scenes they have together are among the movie’s best. That said, the final scene, with Pitt and Richard Jenkins as a mob bureaucrat, is as hard to beat as Jackie’s bullets are tough to dodge.
“Killing Them Softly” opened Friday.