Spoiler Level: Low
Sometimes a film ends up feeling smaller than the sum of its parts, and that is the case with Killing Them Softly, the new film from Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Finely acted, frequently funny, and stylishly directed, Killing Them Softly nonetheless ultimately fails to satisfy: its story is too slight, its characters are too familiar, and its stakes are too small.
An adaptation of George V. Higgin's 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade, Killing Them Softly is set on the seamiest side of the Boston underworld: this is not the milieu of powerful mob kingpins, but of low-level operatives and low-life thugs, and it is in realizing this working-class wasteland that the film succeeds most admirably. Franky (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are two wretches at the lowest end of this criminal food chain, who are enlisted to knock over a poker game run for the mob by a man named Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has a history of robbing his own games, so Franky and Russell—neither of them great thinkers—believe that the blame fall on him. Soon, however, middle-management mobster Richard Jenkins has enlisted hit-man Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to deal with the situation.
Pitt, Jenkins, and James Gandolfini (as a back-up hitman Cogan brings in) all give excellent performances, though none of the actors is asked to stretch particularly far from type. Dominik's direction is impressive, but he is more effective in the quieter and straightforwardly gritty scenes than in some of the more self-consciously stylish pieces he stages. (One shooting-and-car-crash sequence lingers so long over its balletic slow-mo violence that it seems to become genre self-parody, and a conversation between two heroin saturated individuals that fades in and out of coherence just becomes annoying.)
The main problem with Killing Them Softly is that the stakes are too small: the plot is so simple and unsurprising that we wonder why Pitt's coolly efficient fixer was even needed to deal with this situation, and Dominik's characters don't evoke sufficient emotional investment to make up for the too-familiar story. We do not, ultimately, care whether Franky and Russell live or die any more than Pitt's pragmatic hitman does: this lack of emotional concern is one of the themes of the film—“America is a business,” Pitt's character says—but this bleakly unsentimental worldview is not interesting enough to make up for the absence of characters about whom we might actually care.
The worst part is, Dominik seems to know that there's no there there in his story, and so—to compensate—he makes the disastrous choice to set Higgin's 1974 tale in the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election, and to provide a running commentary through newscasts and radio reports about the financial crisis. This heavy-handed attempt to tie the minor crimes of these characters to a vague critique of unfeeling capitalism feels tacked on and underdeveloped: it comes across as a small, sadly shallow film making a desparate—and failed—bid for relevancy and broader significance.
And it's a pity, because it feels like there was a good, smart movie to be made from this spare, cynical tale, if only Dominik had abandoned his overreaching pretensions and focused on making us care about the characters who get chewed up and spit out by this unfeeling world. As it is, though the talent involved in this film might have produced a modern classic, Killing Them Softly ultimately amounts to little more than a minor diversion.