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Review: Brad Pitt is smooth, but 'Killing Them Softly' isn't

The actor impresses as hit man Jackie, but director Andrew Dominik is none too subtle about the film's ideas.

November 29, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

News reports of economic woes and misbegotten corporate schemes play like a soundtrack in "Killing Them Softly," a moody crime noir starring Brad Pitt as a New Orleans hit man dealing with a down market, bad bets and loose change.

Though the notion of crime as a business is nothing new, the film uses the machinations and motivations of the Big Easy's underworld to mirror contemporary corporate America's decline down to the difficult bosses. Yes, the "layoffs" tend to be more lethal, but the severance packages often call for delicate negotiations that sound all too familiar.

Director Andrew Dominik, who last worked with Pitt on 2007's western saga "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," thankfully gets down to business in half the time here. But in adapting George V. Higgins' novel "Cogan's Trade," the writer-director becomes so intent on hammering home the parallels between economic decay, political disappointments and petty criminals, there is nothing soft, or subtle, about it. He should trust his audience more.

PHOTOS: 'Killing Them Softly' red carpet premiere

Pitt, however, is smooth as silk as Jackie, the go-to guy when bad numbers have a major mess in need of a cleanup. He's joined by some of the usual suspects you'd expect to find in a mob lineup, including Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and "Sopranos" alums Vincent Curatola and Max Casella.

But first we meet the mess.

From the film's opening scenes, you know these are marked men. Frankie (an excellent Scoot McNairy) is a small-time grifter in a perpetual state of anxiety. His pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), wearing the sweaty sheen of a smack addict, looks worse. Frankie is newly out of jail and being conned into a double-dealing job by Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Curatola). Squirrel's got a foolproof plan that involves a mob-protected card game run by popular local tough Markie (Liotta). And now he's got two fools.

Frankie does most of the talking and his particular brand of misery settles in like a low-grade fever and drives the film. A flat rasp on the edge of a whine, lank limbs in a perpetual shrug, he never thought to have the American dream but he hungers for it anyway. Russell is in a continual state of cocky resistance and ensuring his next high. At the moment he's paying for his habit by boosting purebred dogs, and the sight of this jacked-up junkie walking a jewel-collared Chihuahua down a ghetto street is both comical and incredibly sad. The card-parlor heist, which goes terribly right and terribly wrong, has that same duality.

As much as "Killing Me Softly" is about low-level street thugs and their various sins, it is also about the fine art of negotiation. As the continual news loop of the country's problems plays, relentless in filling up the background noise, everyone in this mini-microcosm of hard times is talking their way in or out of some kind of difficulty. Even Jackie, the one man in New Orleans who never seems to break a sweat.

He's been enlisted to track down the two kids and figure out whose hands are really dirty and whose simply need slapping. Driver (a wry Richard Jenkins) is the crime machine's middleman, soft voice, big stick, nice suit. As Jackie and Driver circle the issues — Jackie's fees, the mob's needs — it's like listening to a couple of merger and acquisitions guys sparring.

PHOTOS: 'Killing Them Softly' red carpet premiere

This case is dicey enough that Jackie wants a backup shooter. Enter Mickey (Gandolfini), lumbering into town intent on drinking his weight in martinis and bedding every working girl he can. Oh, how I have missed Tony Soprano. It's not that Gandolfini doesn't make Mickey his own man — he does a fine job creating a far more defensive creature — it's just that while Gandolfini can make any mobster tick, Tony remains the unforgettable one.

Despite all the esoteric links to Washington and Wall Street — images of Barack Obama and John McCain circa 2008 hover Big Brother-like on the TV monitors everywhere — this is still a movie about mobsters, and so there will be blood. The director has proved to have a taste for it in the tradition of Peckinpah and Tarantino. It makes for violence that is exceedingly brutal and at times eerily beautiful.

The beatings have all the pent-up rage of people with nothing to lose — as faces become mush it's hard not to look away. The beauty comes when Dominik slows things down and selects just the right bluesy pop song for accompaniment — "Love Letters (Straight from Your Heart)" has never been more soulful. Then a bullet's trajectory and the collateral damage it causes, or the world seen through Russell's smack-saturated fog — becomes mesmerizing with director of photography Greig Fraser doing a spot-on job. The slides into slo-mo, and the different points of view, can leave you feeling unbalanced, but this is a story about lives out of balance, so it mostly works.

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