A deliciously nasty crime flick, “Killing Them Softly” stars Brad Pitt as a hit man hired to kill the gunmen who held up a high-stakes card game protected by the mob. Based on “Cogan’s Trade,” a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s film does not stint on the elements that made the book so readable: gloriously profane dialogue, intense violence and a cast of clueless Boston lowlifes who seem to be put on earth solely so they can be whacked.
Chief among this group are scuzzy-looking thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), who take on the card game job at the urging of sleazeball businessman Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola). Amato has targeted a game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), figuring that because Trattman ripped off his own game several years ago and got away with it, everyone will assume he planned this second robbery.
But here’s where things get complicated. After the holdup, hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt), hired by mysterious middleman Driver (Richard Jenkins) to clean up the mess, realizes that Trattman is not involved, but everyone believes he is, so he and the real robbers have to be killed. What both Driver and Cogan understand is as long as players believe the mob run games are dangerous or rigged, they won’t play, so confidence in the illegal gambling industry must be restored at all costs. And to make a bigger point here, Dominik has set the story in late 2008, when confidence in the American economy was in the toilet, and President Bush announced the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
This subtext is conveyed through speeches by Bush, then-Senator Obama and others, as seen on TV screens in the locales where the story takes place. The micro-macro-economy-in-trouble concept is intriguing, if a bit ham-fisted, but doesn’t detract from the story’s basic essence – a hyper-violent tale told mostly through leisurely paced dialogue scenes that crackle with R-rated poetry. Like the novel it’s based on, “Killing Them Softly” is as much about the stories these scum tell each other and the hare-brained schemes they come up with to make money (Russell steals dogs in Boston, fills up a car with them, and sells them in Florida). The violence is almost secondary.
Which is not the case with the acting, which is first-rate down the line. Particularly good are James Gandolfini as a New York hit man, hired to help Pitt, who can’t stop drinking and whoring, and Pitt himself, who plays Cogan as a smart, connected, and very low-key, but very menacing, killer.
Author Higgins, who died in 1999, wrote more than two dozen novels, most of them dialogue-heavy works set in the Boston underworld. In addition to this picture, only one other book has been filmed; the underrated 1972 classic “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” featuring one of Robert Mitchum’s finest performances. If Coyle and “Killing Them Softly” are any indication, Higgins deserves many more film adaptations. Hollywood needs to step up to the plate.