As a scuzzy ne’er-do-well walks out of some dingy pedestrian tunnel during the opening credits of Killing Them Softly, something odd happens. The screen intermittently goes black, we hear a blast of radio static and then snippets of a political debate. If you’re confused, don’t worry. The movie will make the connection for you shortly. And then it will make the connection again. And again. And again.
Adapted from the 1974 George V. Higgins crime novel by writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Killing Them Softly has been envisioned as a pulp parable about the 2008 American financial meltdown. Much of the action revolves around an underground card game that has recently been robbed at gunpoint. With the game suspended while various criminal types try to figure out who did it, the entire local economy is thrown out of whack. What matters is getting confidence in the game back, so that people will start playing and the money can start flowing. If scapegoats need to be chosen and killed for that to happen, so be it.
It’s a clever-enough idea – a ratty criminal enterprise as the American economy in miniature – but Killing Them Softly isn’t content to let the parallel drift lightly in the air, like the smoke from one of its character’s cigarettes. It hammers the theme home, repeatedly. And so, when two inept thieves (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) try to knock off the card game a second time, we hear John McCain on the television in the background saying that this is “an extraordinary time for America’s economy.” As thugs walk down the decaying streets of the unidentified town, campaign billboards for McCain and Barack Obama loom over them. When Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins – as a hit man and mob spokesman, respectively – sit in a car and negotiate murder prices, Jenkins repeatedly mentions how he’s working on a tight budget, all while market reports murmur on the car radio. Indeed, every time a car is started in this movie, the radio pops on to blurt out some commentary about the economy.
Maybe I would have felt less harangued if Killing Them Softly had offered any of the moody poeticism of Dominik’s Jesse James as respite. If that movie occasionally recalled the visual tenderness of Terrence Malick, this apes the manically stylized bang-banging of a Pulp Fiction knockoff like Smokin’ Aces. Consider, for instance, the use of slow motion: it’s so ostentatious that it even captures raindrops as they fall on freshly fired bullets (with a pop song blaring on the soundtrack, of course).
As for the cast, Pitt’s on suave autopilot, while Mendelsohn – so terrifying in Animal Kingdom – is working on a level of sleaze for which the movie isn’t quite ready. Only James Gandolfini, as a severely depressed hit man, has the sort of presence that lasts. Or maybe I just appreciated his scenes because they were the rare ones without John McCain squawking in the background.