Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik's mob movie Killing Them Softly reveals its true nature in an odd but memorable opening sequence. Debris blows around an empty and burned-out urban landscape. The year is 2008, and both the presidential campaign and the financial crisis hang heavy in the air. A speech by Barack Obama provides the only accompaniment to the stark images, but it's all cut in an intentionally jarring and disorienting style that repeatedly interrupts the eloquent candidate in mid-sentence — sometimes mid-word. Clearly this is not going to be a conventional crime thriller. And like the rest of Dominik's movie — which takes great pains to conflate gun-wielding gangsters with the kind found on Wall Street — it seems a bit heavy-handed. But dull or predictable it's not.
Writer/director Dominik, who previously was known primarily for the brooding Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based Killing Them Softly on George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade, which was set on the mean streets of Boston. The movie was shot last year in New Orleans — sometimes recognizably so — but specific towns mentioned in the script suggest New Jersey. Dominik wants us to understand that the exact location of events doesn't matter. This is America, and as clear-headed but ruthless hit man Jackie Cogan (brilliantly portrayed by Brad Pitt) eventually tells us, "it's not a country, it's a business." This climactic scene (which includes a cameo by New Orleans' own John "Spud" McConnell) also steals a key line directly from the Coen Brothers' classic Blood Simple, revealing a primary source of the film's withering worldview.
Killing Them Softly makes the most of all its pop-culture references. The story involves the grisly consequences of a poor decision made by small-time crooks to rob a high-stakes, mob-connected poker game. But the important thing here is character. Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) appear in key roles as a tragically loose-lipped hood and a sociopathic killer, respectively. Their presence instantly recalls the best mob stories of the last couple of decades and provides a foundation on which the movie can build its own identity. As cultural references go, the film's use of a wordless two-chord vamp from The Velvet Underground's "Heroin" to underscore an addict's reveries may not constitute subtlety, but it's highly effective nonetheless.
Much has been made of the film's extreme violence, but that element is concentrated mostly in two scenes crucial to the film's larger aims. One involves a brutal beating that's vivid and realistic enough to make you avert your eyes. The other transforms an assassination into a beautiful slow-motion ballet of bullets and broken glass that would have made director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) proud. There's nothing gratuitous or cartoonish about these scenes. Movies like Killing Them Softly and the recent Killer Joe use violence to reveal something true about our culture, and they shine a harsh light on lesser movies that sensationalize brutality. It's never easy to watch, but that is precisely the point. — KEN KORMAN