In 2008, as the financial crisis peaked, America split its time between freaking out and talking about the difference between Wall Street and Main Street. Apparently, we should have been thinking about Mean Street—about two-bit thugs becoming one-bit triggermen and assassins demoted to errand boys. That seems to be Andrew Dominik's thesis, and the Aussie director spends the whole of Killing Them Softly examining the financial crisis from the perspective of that smallest of small businesses: the network of thugs, junkies, bookies, gangsters, card sharks, murderers and numbskulls who make the underbelly of Everytown, U.S.A., seem like a prime cut of Americana.
With his sophomore (and most recent) film, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik took American film's most time-honored genre and retrofitted it as a revisionist, pessimistic and dourly beautiful examination of the cost of legend. Here, Dominik is working with the 21st-century equivalent of Jesse James: inner-city criminals. Yet the director isn't nearly as effective reimagining Martin Scorsese's oeuvre as he was taking an existential lens to Howard Hawks, and as a result Killing Them Softly seems less a meditation than a knockoff.
That's not to say it's without nuance. At its base is would-be gangster Frankie (newcomer Scoot McNairy, on a roll since Argo), who is duped into a "foolproof" plan to hold up a local card game run by a small-time hustler (Ray Liotta), only to jack so much money that the criminal economy collapses. Essentially, Frankie is a greaseball Merrill Lynch…or at least that's the conclusion we're prompted to draw from the endless clips of Presidents Bush and Obama talking about the recession, leading one to hypothesize that small-time crooks single-handedly prop up NPR.
It's a ham-fisted device, but one that's forgiven once the film becomes an actors' game with the introduction of Brad Pitt—Jesse James himself—as a mysterious mob enforcer and Richard Jenkins, who sympathetically furthers the Wall Street metaphor as a lawyer whose job is to negotiate multiple murders in the name of PR. In fact, nearly every performance is spot on, from McNairy's cowering fish to Liotta's sniveling piñata of a lowlife. Even James Gandolfini makes a scene-stealing extended cameo as a washed-up hit man who waxes poetic about anal prostitution and (unrelated) love.
This predominance of character actors, in combination with the fact that this is a gangster film post-Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, is sadly the film's Achilles' heel. Dragging at less than 100 minutes, Killing immerses us in a world of loquacious criminal archetypes. Only, instead of talking about pop culture, these degenerates are more keen to bitch about bank accounts and feelings. Pitt, whose character is the only non-emo thug of the bunch, laments that killing somebody you know is too "touchy-feely." He's got a solid point: Whether they've got guns at their heads or are simply sitting around, these are gangsters who talk endlessly about everything from remorse to bestiality in a way that, in any other film, would get them pistol-whipped by the nearest dwarf resembling Joe Pesci.
Still, Dominik manages cinematic poetry throughout, from the offbeat sound design to the horrific violence that sends any conversational whimsy screeching to a halt. But the director seems to want an update of Mean Streets for a new generation of deep thinkers, one in which the recession replaces Vietnam in the social consciousness, so we can examine how trickle-down economics spill into the gutter. Instead, he's made the American equivalent of a Guy Ritchie film—kinetic, violent, talky and hip, to be sure, but generally empty despite its grand gestures and big talk.
Critic's Grade: C+
Killing Them Softly is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Lloyd Center, Cinema 99, City Center, Evergreen Parkway, Movies on TV.