Film Review: Killing Them Softly

A 1970s shaggy-dog heist story set in 2008 New Orleans, 'Killing Them Softly''s razor-sharp edge is never far from the surface.

It starts with a plan any idiot would know was doomed. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), a perpetual small-time wiseguy in thrall to the delusion that one smart move could send him rocketing up the ladder, imagines his ticket to the big time is knocking over a high-stakes poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The beauty of it is that Markie is a perfect fall guy, having already ripped off his own game once before. Markie's always been popular, which is why he isn't long-dead, but even the prom king of life's party doesn't get a second “Hey, WTF, it's Markie” pass.

Johnny recruits ex-con Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who brings in his pal Russell (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, of 2010's chilling Animal Kingdom), a professional dog-napper with dreams of moving up to smack dealing, even though Johnny has him pegged (quite rightly) as a junkie screw-up. The heist goes surprisingly well…it's the aftermath that's a killer, and level-headed enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the guy stuck cleaning up the mess.

Adapted from the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), Killing them Softly is black comedy at its most stygian, a parade of sad-sacks, no-hopers, sellouts, screw-ups and basket cases: No one with the sense God gave geese would bid a nickel on the lot at auction. And the sad thing is that most of them know it. The other sad thing is that a handful don't, and their attempts to claw their way out of the barrel by treading on anyone too weak, stupid or principled to slap them back causes a whole lot of trouble.

The film's underlying conceit—that all this bottom-feeder jockeying for position is the funhouse mirror of American politics and business—is neither as fresh nor as compelling as writer-director Andrew Dominik appears to think. But the movie is never dull: Higgins could plot like nobody's business, the dialogue crackles with crude energy and vulgar eloquence, and the cast is exemplary: In addition to those already mentioned, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Sam Shepard and “Boardwalk Empire”'s Max Casella knock every single scene out of the park.