Puffed up with cynical pretension, Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of George V. Higgins’s 1974 crime novel, Cogan’s Trade, begins with lowlife hoodlum Frankie (Scoot McNairy) slo-mo walking through a desolate American small town. Trash blows around like tumbleweeds, and a senator named Barack Obama declaims on the soundtrack about the land of the free’s increasing economic woes. (The film takes place right at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.)
Even Jackie (Brad Pitt), a professional assassin in town to kill Frankie and his partners in crime for knocking over an underground card game, is affected by the impending recession. Each kill has to be approved by a clueless midlevel bureaucrat (Richard Jenkins), and Jackie’s boozing loser of an accomplice, Mickey (James Gandolfini), is helping out only for the quick payday. It’s the forlorn American experience filtered through a noirish prism.
But just in case Killing Them Softly’s big statements are unclear, Dominik overloads the soundtrack with archival musings of O, Dubya and John McCain, as well as thuddingly literal music cues, like that go-to ditty for easy ironic counterpoint, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” The supra-subtext is slathered on so thick that it quashes the performers’ best efforts to lend genuine tension and emotion to this allegorical tale of a nation on the brink. (Like the plodding heist scene that sets the story in motion, the prevailing mood is one of dully monotonous dread.) Only Gandolfini comes off as a character as opposed to an effigy, his sad-sack posture and fuck-it-all unprofessionalism truly capturing the tragedy of a working man with a one-way ticket to 99-percenter hell.
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