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Cannes 2012: Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt takes on morally bankrupt thugs and Bush-era economic malaise.

Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly

"I live in America, and America is not a country. It’s a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.” It’s a killer last exchange, and as the thesis behind Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik’s dingy adaptation of George V. Higgins’s crime novel, it’s as bleak a take on the recession era’s dog-eat-dog mentality as you’re likely to hear. Actually, it’s more like dog hires other dog to kill a kennel’s worth of mutts—specifically, an unholy, barely coherent trio who’s robbed a floating poker game. They figure it’s the perfect score: Since the game’s organizer (Ray Liotta) had already engineered his own heist on the syndicate’s makeshift casino a few years back, he’ll make a great patsy. (A guy’s gotta rip himself off just to make a dishonest buck these days! Things are truly tough all over.)

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Cannes Film Festival

Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt as human oil slick), the mob fixer who’s assigned to clean up the mess. But thanks to middle-management muddling and a bad outsourcing decision regarding an out-of-town hit man (James Gandolfini) gone to seed, blood doesn’t get spilled in the orderly fashion Cogan is used to. In fact, not much happens in Killing Them Softly according to expectations, especially for viewers who think they’re getting a slam-bang thriller. For every hyperviolent exchange—Liotta suffering one of the more excruciating beatdowns ever filmed; a stylishly slo-mo drive-by assassination—there are numerous scenes of two characters tersely discussing business terms, pay rates and moral choices, or commenting on the omnipresent news reports about the economy tanking.

Right, yes, so about that last bit: Remember the 2008 meltdown, when you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Dubya impotently addressing the crisis or listening to presidential candidate Barack Obama discussing the Wall Street versus Main Street divide? Those clips play in the background or across the soundtrack of Killing consistently, a Greek chorus of social rot that both sets a time frame and politicizes the pulp. You don’t have to be Robert Warshow to know that gangster films have doubled as capitalism critiques since Cagney’s heyday, but the comparisons between corporate crime and federal highway robbery, especially if one accounts for Obama’s trail-stumping rhetoric about the economy and what’s happened recovery-wise since he took office, couldn’t be more blatant. The film’s nihilistic, chatty-Cathy wiseguys may be closer to Beckett characters than Tarantino toughs, but the bombed-out landscapes are certainly located in a late-Bush Amerika that’s recognizably downbeat.

"Except there are no characters, just metaphors,” moan the Twitterati, a swipe that conveniently ignores the nuanced performances of Pitt, Richard Jenkins as a go-between, Ben Mendelsohn as an Aussie smackhead and, notably, Gandolfini, who makes his martini-sucking sad sack the most sympathetic and hateful gargoyle in the bunch. Dominik does throw in a few questionable calls—perhaps having someone shoot heroin to the sound of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” might strike some as a bit obvious. Yet like his oddball vision of the Western as celeb-culture parable, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the filmmaker has taken the inherent elements of a genre, subverted their pleasure zones and tweaked to fit contemporary concerns. Such news-scroll-ticker methodologies may not strike you as subtle (you can insert you own “Softly?” dig here), but compliments must be paid.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear