I haven’t read “Cogan’s Trade,” George V. Higgins’ Boston-set crime novel that’s been turned into the movie “Killing Them Softly,” so I can’t fully report on how faithful the adaptation is. But I do know that it was published in 1974, which means it definitely was not set against the backdrop of the 2008 economic meltdown and concurrent U.S. presidential election. That’s important to note because the way writer/director Andrew Dominik has it, the dirty deeds of the criminal underground metaphorically reflect the banking crisis and the government’s reaction to it.
And hey, more power to him. Without that angle, “Killing Them Softly” is an unremarkable twisty-turny crime caper about various facets of uncivilized society robbing and murdering one another, one of dozens of such movies that have been produced since Quentin Tarantino sprang into existence (although it’s more “Boondock Saints” than “Pulp Fiction,” quality-wise). With Dominik’s interpolations — in the form of sound bites from George W. Bush and Barack Obama, heard and seen in the background — it takes on a new significance that helps it stand out from the many films it otherwise resembles.
Here’s what we have. We have a regular poker game for shady people, hosted by fellow shady person Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), that gets robbed by two masked goons, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and Frankie (Scoot McNairy). Holding up a poker game for criminals may sound like a dumb idea, but Russell and Frankie were hired to do it by another criminal, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), who had reason to believe that they’d be able to get away with it.
After the heist, the higher-ups bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to punish whoever was responsible, with an unnamed bureaucrat played by Richard Jenkins serving as go-between. Jackie doesn’t like to kill people he’s had personal dealings with before, so he outsources part of the job to another hitman, Mickey (James Gandolfini), who uses the business trip as an excuse to drink himself stupid and cavort with prostitutes. As more facts come to light and more action is required, the unnamed bureaucrat must return to his supervisors to get approval.
The characters don’t directly mention the national financial crisis very often (though they are aware of it), but Dominik makes it impossible for us to miss the parallels. (In no way is this a subtle film. Of Dominik’s previous two movies — the ultra-violent “Chopper” and the ruminative “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — this is more like the former.) Someone must be punished for the very bad thing that happened at that card game — but who? The guys who did the job? The people who put them up to it? The system that made such a heist possible in the first place? And what sort of punishment is appropriate? Will the guys who are higher up in the food chain be punished less severely than their underlings, even though they are just as culpable? Is it more important to enforce the “law” among criminals, or to send a message to other criminals? As Jackie says, “It’s not so much what you been doin’. It’s what guys think you been doin'” that matters.
But don’t worry about “Killing Them Softly” becoming a political diatribe. Its primary mission is to deliver bone-cracking violence and funny, profanity-driven tough-guy dialogue, and it does that awfully well. Two goons (Max Casella and Trevor Long) beat up a manly character, played by a macho actor, with such fervency that the guy pathetically vomits and whimpers. Someone is shot in the head in super-slow-motion: a ballet of gore. Jackie, Mickey, the unnamed bureaucrat, and others hold dizzying conversations about life, the universe, and everything, always with crackling energy and dark humor. Ain’t nothin’ new about it, but it’s a cool 97 minutes of seedy amusement.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )