Tough guys and wannabe outlaws stick up card games, shoot each other, and generally press the “Nasty” button in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rambling, slackadaisical variation on a theme that’s been around, oh, about a hundred years in movies. Writer-director Dominik, who made the interesting western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007, is obviously unafraid to step in where so many directors have trod before him, the streets of Hoodlumville, USA. But he should have been.
The project is blessed with a blue-chip cast (Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn from Animal Kingdom, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Sam Shepard), a crime novel by the great George V. Higgins (Cogan’s Trade) to work off of, and the scummy, litter-strewn environs of New Orleans as backdrop. So what went wrong?
Weak-brained drug users Frankie (McNairy) and Russell (Mendelsohn) rip off a protected card room operated by Markie (Liotta), and hit men Jackie Cogan (Pitt) and his pal Mickey (Gandolfini) are sent to make an example of them. There is an infinite variety of ways to handle such a scenario. Ever since Pulp Fiction, ill-advised filmmakers have stayed up late trying for the perfect combo of goofball loquaciousness and cold-blooded brutality with characters like these. The latest major example before Killing Them Softly was Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, which crapped out early despite similar apparent advantages.
Dominik falls into the same hole. Good actors and unimpeachable source material hampered by faulty chatter, leading to thumb-twiddling. Dominik is simply not in the same league as Quentin Tarantino. Dialogue scenes go on forever, as if by stretching the actors’ attention spans the watery language will suddenly become wine. It’s difficult to believe that Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) had anything to do with such a crippled screenplay. Every cliché in the book. For instance, too-obvious musical interludes — when someone mainlines smack, we hear the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Shooters make unnecessary small talk with their victims. Whatever happened to a sudden .22 in the back of the head?
There are a few short, bright moments, most of them involving Gandolfini, Pitt, and Jenkins, although Mickey does run on a bit. The nighttime beating of Markie is impressively lit. More needle drops intrude: Nico (“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”), Kitty Lester (“Love Letters”), and Petula Clark (“Windmills of Your Mind”). But the most awkward plot wrinkle in the film, something that Higgins could never be blamed for (the author died in 1999), is the setting of the action in 2008, in the heat of the financial meltdown and the presidential election. We’re treated to extended clips, on bar and hotel room TVs, of speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Then, to cap it off, Jackie makes his own campaign speech, a sour and gratuitous little diatribe about how rotten everything is, beginning with Thomas Jefferson. The effect of this is something like putting whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on a dead dog. You should walk past dead dogs as quickly as possible. Do the same with Killing Them Softly.