Bleak, brutal ‘Killing’ a showcase for Pitt’s slow-burn intensity

Killing Them Softly/2012/Plan B Entertainment/97 min.

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.

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Coen Brothers’ ‘Man’ is darkly moody, handsomely shot

The Man Who Wasn’t There/2001/Good Machine, et al/116 min.

Scarlett Johansson plays a high-school student in this 2001 film.

What would life be without a dark and handsome companion at night? One I highly recommend is “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This homage to vintage film noir, gorgeously shot in black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins, conjures a guy you’ll always remember.

Set in 1949, the film introduces us to a choice cast of characters. Top of the list is introspective and blasé Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who has fallen into a comfortable, if dull, life in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s fond of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), both cynical and oddly sweet, but there’s never been any passion between them.

To earn a living, Ed cuts hair with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) at the family barbershop. (“I don’t talk much,” Ed tells us. “I just cut the hair.”) Doris is a bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s, the town’s big department store, and together they have it “made” – after all, Ed points out dryly, they have a garbage grinder built into the sink.

When he’s not working or tossing scraps down their fancy drain, Ed kills time mainly by smoking and taking care of Doris after she’s had too much to drink, which is quite often. Doris passes the hours of their lives by playing bingo and having an affair with her boss at Nirdlinger’s, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), a blustery WW2 vet. Dave’s married to Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz), whose family owns the store. Ed knows about the affair but, as he does with everything, takes it in stride.

Ed’s life changes forever the day that unctuous big-mouth businessman Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into the barbershop as it’s about to close, gets a very quick trim and happens to mention that he’s in town trying to raise money to invest in drycleaning, which he’s convinced is “the biggest business opportunity since Henry Ford.”

Ed decides later that night that he wants in on the putative drycleaning empire and figures he can raise the requisite $10,000 by anonymously blackmailing Dave. No sooner does Ed get the cash than Tolliver takes off with it. And because Tolliver is so quick to bend ears and beg for money, Dave gets to the bottom of the blackmail scheme and intends to get his money back.

What Dave doesn’t count on is that Ed’s mild facade hides nerves of cold steel; when cornered, Ed’s response to him is quick, instinctive and deadly. But, after news breaks of Doris and Dave’s affair, Doris is arrested for Dave’s murder. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’

The Man Who Wasn’t There/2001/Good Machine, et al/116 min.

What would life be without a dark and handsome companion at night? One I highly recommend is “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This homage to vintage film noir, gorgeously shot in black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins, conjures a guy you’ll always remember.

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini, and a peerless supporting cast.

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