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If words could kill, few characters would be left standing at the end of Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominik’s movie is a crime film in which spurts of action occasionally puncture calm and sustained scenes of dialogue and character display. It’s a weird pace, and not one that’s likely to satisfy action enthusiasts – although some of the mesmerizing images of slo-mo bullet trajectories and the spider-veining of cracked safety glass should appease the pent-up bloodlust. Still, the film is not paced around these action spurts, but rather the conversations the characters have in advance about their reluctance, hesitation, preparation, and resignation regarding the killings at hand. Even the crucial holdup of a card game that sets the plot into motion becomes an extended interlude instead of a quick robbery and getaway.
Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), Killing Them Softly moves the novel’s Boston locale to New Orleans in 2008, sometime prior to the presidential election. The portrait of the crime-world underbelly as a self-sustaining, self-policing society remains the same, and Dominik’s screenplay adaptation retains Higgins’ piquant language and turns of phrase. There are no coppers or G-men in this story. The mob metes out its own justice and enforces its own rules of behavior. In this, the mob is like any big corporation in America, and that’s a point Dominik hammers over and over.
Dominik seems not to trust viewers to reach this understanding on their own. Beginning with the opening credits, televisions and radios are playing in the background of the scenes, always tuned to the presidential candidates speechifying about individual promise and the tough economic times. The film’s closing speech cynically states: “America’s not a country. It’s just a business.” The mob is even structured like a corporation, with a nameless functionary (played by Richard Jenkins) serving as the middleman who hires the hit man, Jackie (Brad Pitt, in another seemingly effortless star turn). The functionary has no authority and has to take everything back to his higher-ups, whose decisions are delayed by committeelike internal disagreements and squabbles. On their own, the scenes between Jenkins and Pitt (mostly set inside a stationary automobile) are pleasing conversational bits. So, too, the scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini (as the world-weary hit man who looks like a traveling salesman and who has allowed booze and sex to get the better of his acumen), or the scenes between Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as the dopey hoodlums looking to rise through the ranks. Gandolfini, playing his role as if he were the Willy Loman of hit men, creates yet another rhythm in the movie, one that’s in step with the character’s own ruminative self-destruction. It’s a beautiful thing to observe, yet a couple of times it threatens to stop the movie dead in its tracks with its pauses and private reveries.
Although the film is set in New Orleans, Dominik uses none of that city’s unique flavor or patois. Characters’ accents span the globe from Boston to Australia. Yet the boarded-up, empty streets of post-Katrina New Orleans provide an Anywasteland, USA, vibe that enhances the idea of Killing Them Softly as a metaphor for the U.S. economic system in distress. As with his previous film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik’s ideas get the better of his creative handiwork as he throws off his pacing to follow points he has already made.