By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Subtle as a sledgehammer and just as unwieldy, Killing Them Softly gives new meaning to the term "gratuitous violence." People are regularly offed with point-blank brutality in Andrew Dominik's movie, in scenes sticking out like broken thumbs between tough-guy soliloquies. Talk talk, bang bang then an ending as abrupt as The Sopranos' finale.
Killing Them Softly is based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, who specialized in writing about the lower rungs of organized crime. His ear for underworld conversations in books like this and The Friends of Eddie Coyle made Higgins an early inspiration to today's Tarantinos, who like their killers loquacious. So many imitators, so little freshness left in the idea.
Dominik transports Higgins' south Boston hoodlums to post-Katrina New Orleans, where chowdah accents sound out of place and no voices have Southern drawls. But Brad Pitt has a home and charity interests there, and he's the reason Killing Them Softly was made. Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer called in to clean up a messy situation that in trigger-happy hands gets messier.
It begins with the strong-arm robbery of a high stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Markie previously arranged a similar heist, so he's immediately suspected. In fact, it's grimy losers Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) underneath the stocking masks, hired by a neighborhood fixer (Vincent Curatola). Somebody must pay, and perhaps everyone will.
Jackie is a principled murderer, preferring to "kill 'em softly," from a distance so there's no emotional connection. He wants the right people whacked and nobody else gets hurt. Killing Them Softly becomes a procession of shoot-ups and beat-downs filmed with fetish. If you're into seeing people die stylishly messy, this is the movie for you.
Between the violence, Killing Them Softly settles into profane arias of bad people sitting around talking about baser instincts. James Gandolfini gets two such near-monologues as New York Mickey, a hit man brought in from guess where to assist Jackie. Mickey's alcohol and hooker habits won't work, Jackie tells Driver (Richard Jenkins), the mob's buttoned-down go-between whose only concern is the bottom line.
Dominik dotes indulgently on these macho conversations, giving leeway to his actors that can result in cynical clarity or extended tedium. Then he'll jolt you with senses-pummeling violence, like a drive-by assassination shot in motion so slow that we see raindrops bouncing off shell casings. Nobody dies softly here; they're mutilated, splattered in blood and vomit, set up by people who'll get theirs soon.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.