The anvils of obviousness rain down so hard and fast in Killing Them Softly, Australian director Andrew Dominik’s meditation on low-rent crime and American decline, that it might as well be a Coyote-Road Runner cartoon. A bloody, self-serious Coyote-Road Runner cartoon with some strong performances trapped in a movie that thinks way too highly of itself.
The heavy-handedness is evident from the first frame when audio from an Obama hope-and-change campaign speech is juxtaposed with the crumbling landscape of a no-name town in some quadrant of the Northeastern American Rust Belt. In the autumn of 2008, the economy is in free fall, and two shambling figures — Frankie (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and Russell (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn from Animal Kingdom) — meet to talk about what their next scam is going to be.
Russell knows a basement-level hood who has the bright idea to hold up an underground gambling operation run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with it because the other gangsters don’t trust Markie and will think he staged the robbery himself for some easy cash.
Of course, no one needs a weatherman to see which way this ill wind is blowing. An enforcer, Jackie (Brad Pitt, who also co-produced), is brought in to get to the bottom of what happened and dish out the appropriate, bullet-backed punishment.
Written by Dominick, from a novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is best when portraying criminal camaraderie. Mendelsohn and the empathetic McNairy show off an edgy, nervous chemistry and sense of humor while James Gandolfini, as a down-on-his-luck hit man Jackie hires, digs into a deep well of sadness beneath his character’s boozy bluster. They overshadow Pitt, who doesn’t have much to do but look alternately bored and angry and then kill people.
For whatever reason, no one here as bought a new car since the heyday of land yachts and muscle cars, so the streets are boulevards of beat-up but still magnificent American steel. It’s all set against a backdrop of dire economic headlines with speeches from then-president Bush, Obama and commentators talking about the financial crisis. It’s as if everyone in this gray, dying city only watches C-Span and listens to news radio.
Yes, we get it: the world of street-level thuggery is meant to parallel presumed crimes in bank boardrooms and government chambers. And we all reside in a perpetual cultural twilight where nothing — from the crime to the cars — is as glamorous and wonderful as it used to be.
When combined with Dominik taking a page from Quentin Tarantino’s playbook by scoring his scenes of brutal violence with innocuous American pop — It’s Only a Paper Moon or Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries — Killing Them Softly becomes a piping-hot cup of cliche. That’s too bad because Dominik made the riveting Australian crime film Chopper in 2000, the movie that launched the career of Eric Bana, as well as the well-received The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also starred Pitt.
But in his attempt to make some broad, grand statement about contemporary America, Dominik may have brought the heaviest anvil down upon himself.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini.
Writer/director: Andrew Dominik. Based on the novel by George V. Higgins.
Producers: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Brad Pitt, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 97 minutes. Violence, strong language, sexual references, some drug use. Playing at area theaters.