Killing Them Softly: Writer-Director Andrew Dominik Reteams with Star Brad Pitt

Cannes Film Fest 2012 (In Competition)–Writer-director Andrew Dominik reunites with star Brad Pitt for the second time in “Killing Them Softly,” a heavily talky, character-driven crime tale, punctuated by arty (and artsy) floursihes, which go out of their way to distinguish the picture from many other similar genre items.

Pitt, Brad: Crime and Politics

Dominik and Pitt’s first picture together, the magesterial Western “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,” was greeted with critical acclaim, but it didn’t find an audience, perhaps because the film was too long, too moody and brooding, and too arty for the mass crowds. (It was also poorly marketed and distributed after its Venice Film Fest bow, where Pitt won the acting prize).

And now comes a second collaboration, also produced by Pitt and his company Plan B, which received its world premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Fest (In Competition), and will be released by the Weinstein Company September 21 (after playing some early fall fests, such as Toronto).

As a crime story, “Killing Them Softly” lacks narrative juice, dramatic energy, or enaging plot to speak of. Instead, the saga unfolds as a series of profane and nihilistic talks, usually between two characters, and more often than not within confined interiors. At least half of the “action” takes place inside clubs, hotel rooms, and especially cars.

Male-driven to a fault—there’s only one female character, a black prostitute—“Killing Them Softly” sets its aims high, perhaps pretentiously so, using the film’s crime as an allegory of all the ills that inflict American post-capitalism, circa 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president.

To that extent, the characters are willing to quote and (mis) interpret Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, whenever they are in public spaces, the TV is on, with Barack Obama (or George W. Bush) giving upbeat speeches about the essence of democracy, equality for all, and the promise of the American Dream.

Hardcore genre afficionados may be disappointed by Dominik’s picture, which is mostly talk and little action, whereas the art crowd may find the picture too cynical, grim, profane and bloody. Thus, film’s most marketable asset is Brad Pitt, who gives yet another compelling performance as a forceful sociopath, a hit man hired to clean up the mess created by some lowlifes.

Dominik’s scenario is based on the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, “Cogan’s Trade,” which dealt more graphically and impressively than the movie with the Boston mob world. Previously, Higgins’ first novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” was adapted to the big screen in a norish drama starring Robert Mitchum.

The plot is rather simple: Vet Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola, best known for playing Johnny Sak in HBO’s “The Sopranos”) hires two not very bright and inexperienced youngsters, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelson) to raid a card night run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who had once robbed his own game and got away with it. It’s an easy job, though Frankie and Russell get greedy and force the players to empty their personal wallets, in addition to the larger amounts of money on the table.

If the plot is familiar, the characters are not: They are colorful inidviduals, vividly drawn and played by a great ensemble of actors. Let me ealborate on some of then.

Johnny Amato, a guy who never made it to the top, is always scheming, and barely staying out of jail. Johnny, who met Frankie in prison and sees himself as his mentor, brings Frankie on as the foreman of a job. When the games are shut down, Driver (Richard Jenkins), a lawyer and the go-between with Jackie Cogan, needs to find out who did it. Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a low-level guy, becomes an obvious suspect when the mob starts pointing the finger after their card game is rolled.

What elevates “Killing Them Softly” above the routine crimers and hit men sagas is the sharp characterization of the central quintet and the superlative acting of the thesps who play them.

With two great performances last year (“Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life”), Brad Pitt is clearly at the height of his career, rendering here another effortless compelling star turn as a sociopath who’s all business and no emotions. “I like to kill them from a distance,” Pitt’s Jackie says coolly and matter-of-fact, reporaching a mate for becoming too “touchy-feely.”

Though shifting the action to 2008 and moving the tale to the post-Katrina New Orleans, “Killing Them Softly” could have taken place anytime and anywhere. As noted, few scenes are set outdoors using the particular colors and landscapes of Louisiana. In fact, even when the characters are out on the streets, there is no other person in sight. And while the grim and desolate physical locale contributes to the tale’s grim and desolate mood, it also devoids the saga from grounding in any specific context.

The picture’s concluding scene, in which Jackie insistently negotiates for the precise fee he thinks he deserves, is extremely cynical and unsettling, and Pitt’s very last line (which cannot be quoted here) may enter into movie lore in the same way that some of Tarantino’s monologues have.

Cast

Jackie – Brad Pitt
Frankie – Scoot McNairy
Russell – Ben Mendelsohn
Driver – Richard Jenkins
Mickey – James Gandolfini
Markie Trattman – Ray Liotta
Johnny Amato – Vincent Curatola
Kenny Gill – Slaine
Barry Caprio – Max Casella
Steve Caprio – Trevor Long
Dillon – Sam Shepard

Credits

Director: Andrew Dominik
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik, based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Matt Butan, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Adi Shankar, Spencer Silna
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Patricia Norris
Costume designer: Patricia Norris
Editor: Brian A. Kates

Running time: 97 minutes