This adaptation of George V Higgins’s 1970s crime novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ drags the book’s down-and-dirty story of poker games, petty criminals and the mob forward to 2008. But it keeps that decade’s crumbling, end-of-the-world look in its near-apocalyptic New Orleans setting and its commitment to serious, entertaining American cinema. It also pulls off the clever trick of operating as a gangster movie – these mobsters have missions to complete and people to kill – while at the same time sarkily undermining these same folk, attributing to them a heavy dose of incompetence.
The story finds fish swimming with sharks. Two penniless young crims, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), shoot up a backroom poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). As quick as you can say ‘naive’, they have a cool, calm mob fixer, Jackie (Brad Pitt), on their tail, who hires an assassin, Mickey (James Gandolfini), to do his dirty work; Mickey’s handler is a backroom suit, Driver (Richard Jenkins).
It’s all defiantly male, and the only woman to open her mouth is a prostitute. But ‘Killing Them Softly’ is also pleasingly anti-macho in presenting the world of gangsters as a chaotic shit-show forever undermined by human fallibility. The film’s occasional bursts of violence are tempered by such moments as a character sobbing and vomiting after a beating. Another character’s marriage crisis and hard drinking make him criminally impotent.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik (‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, ‘Chopper’) lays it on a little thick, both the state-of-the-nation nods, with ample TV clips of Barack Obama and George W Bush playing in the background, and the idea that this grimy noir is a metaphor for sickness and stupidity in the financial sector. But, those niggles aside, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is a cracking piece of storytelling with a restrained balance of laid-back chat and canny visual outbursts – and it has a delicious thread of gallows humour running through it.
Dominik plays his hand as a stylist just enough, memorably in a scene where a character is trying to talk through a fog of heroin, and another in which a man is assassinated in super-slo-mo. It’s also a terrific actors’ movie, with everyone on screen putting in some of their best work, from Mendelsohn’s cocky and comic petty slimeball act to Gandolfini’s turn as a past-it, booze-soaked killer with a sharp tongue. Massively pleasurable and just smart enough.