There has been much clucking of tongues over the sledgehammer use of topical references in Killing Them Softly, based on a novel published nearly 40 years ago. The source, George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, hails from 1974, while writer-director Andrew Dominik relocates it not to the present day, but 2008, specifically the waning days of the Obama-McCain election and the first wave of the Financial Catastrofuck. The tongue-clucking has not been unearned: As petty criminals and hitmen swirl about, fucking each other over, Dominik pipes in campaign speeches and TVs of Bush II trying to abate anxieties and assert unity. No one directly acknowledges these intrusions until the final scene, but the feeling is like having an elbow wiggling permanently inside your rib cage.
And yet the film works anyway, as it still delivers the film on top of the subtext. Higgins’ most famous novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was adapted for the screen in 1973, fitting snugly in the decade’s cinema of stark miserablism. Despite the update, Killing Them Softly mostly feels like 1973: Everyone is scraping by, living hand-to-mouth. The Louisiana setting is all urban wastelands, sad bars and private drug dens with chipped paint. Big scores don’t improve one’s lot in life but simply mark you for future elimination.
The plot is minimalist-bordering-on-elemental: Low-rent crooks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) decide to rip off a big poker game, assuming everyone will suspect a fall guy (Ray Liotta). They do, but it’s only time before a hitman (Brad Pitt) tracks them down, too. This is Pitt’s second film with Dominik, after the doomed-yet-brilliant epic anti-Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and though it’s half the length (after much cutting), the methodology is similarly uncompromising: It’s a neo-noir told as a series of hang-out conversations, not with Tarantino swagger but bone-dry and weary.
Dominik cuts loose with a super-slo-mo nighttime assassination scene right out of Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. But most of the time, he’s working in dispassionate Cinema Scope, patiently building up to a didactic monologue that, happily, leads to a decent punchline. Most of the time, it’s basically OK that making the subtext part of the text does little but rob some Cinema Studies student of a paper idea.