‘Killing Them Softly’: With a bang

November 28, 2012

While crime fiction with an edge of both menace and wit have become mainstays on TV, movies haven’t been able to consistently blend the two in recent years, with most attempts seeming either too hyperbolic and action-y or too self-consciously noir-y.

Now comes “Killing Them Softly,” which may be the best hard-boiled crime film since “The Departed.” Directed by Andrew Dominik (who did the overrated Terrence Malick impression, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), “Killing Them Softly” brings things back to the exceptionally mean streets of South Boston.

The seemingly obvious touchstones here are the films of Ben Affleck, particularly “The Town.” But though “Killing Them Softly” treads the same contemporary streets of south Boston (actually New Orleans) as “The Town,” Affleck’s film was a story of modern criminals – but the soul of Dominik’s film is the 1974 novel of the late George V. Higgins, “Cogan’s Trade,” on which it is based.

So there’s a distinctly 1970s’ feel to this world, which is full of talkers instead of doers. Sure, the talking eventually leads to the doing; but really, this movie is as much about the talk as a Tarantino film.

Instead of dealing in any way with women, who distract men from crime as they did in “The Town,” “Killing Them Softly” focuses on a world of men. It’s an old order, hard to crush. The one woman who seems to get to speak is a foul-mouthed hooker, who gives as good as she gets in an exchange with James Gandolfini.

The story is the same as in Higgins’ novel. A trio of small-timers (Vincent Curatola, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) collude to commit an armed robbery on a Mob-protected card game. So it behooves the Mob to track these jokers down and make an example of them – and anyone else who might look like they were in on it, just to be safe.

The contractor dealing with this particular bit of piecework is Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who discusses terms with the local syndicate’s attorney (Richard Jenkins, in a wonderfully persnickety performance). Jackie’s job is to find out who did it and then eliminate them. Permanently.

But while there is graphic and bloody violence in this film – hey, it’s about three Mob executions – Dominik’s film, from his own script, uses those eruptions to punctuate the dazzlingly dynamic interpersonal relations in this underworld of guys. Higgins’ novel was almost completely dialogue-driven, in a way no other author has done as successfully in recent years except Elmore Leonard. The script captures that rich, heavily Boston-salted dialogue and Dominik isn’t afraid to let the characters talk, revealing themselves with what they don’t discuss as much as what they do. It’s a style that David Mamet subsequently perfected.

Dominik also deliberately sets his story against the final months of 2008, with the financial crisis unfolding on the TV sets in the backgrounds at the bars where much of the film’s action seems to take place. While the election figures in the background noise, the real soundtrack is the sound of Wall Street crumbling and George W Bush scrambling in front of the real fiscal cliff.

To Jackie, this is all business. He hates the bloodlessly corporate caution that seems to guide this Mob’s tiller. The lawyer nickels and dimes him, as though bargaining over a basement remodeling instead of a small killing spree.

Pitt brings a dry, slightly weary energy to this character, who recognizes that, while he offers a necessary service and has always gotten the job done, they’re still going to try to chisel him. But he’s good enough at what he does that he’s able to anticipate the moves of what are not criminals of deep intellectual gifts.

But there’s a code and a method to Jackie Cogan’s work, which involve a certain dignity (when earned), along with an unblinking ruthlessness. He won’t kill just anyone – and when he does, there are procedures.

Dominik allows tension to mount in scenes in which Jackie encounters his potential victims, the way a cat might encounter a mouse in a closed, locked space. Scaring them isn’t a sadistic thing, so much as a psychological weapon to soften the victim for the inevitable.

There is very little conventional suspense plotting to “Killing Them Softly,” and yet Dominik’s patient approach creates great tension. This is a world in which sudden, arbitrary and violent death always seems like a possibility; no wonder people are jumpy.

Pitt makes an energy-efficient gangster, one who takes no action until he knows he has his targets all but cornered. He has great timing and a no-nonsense delivery that manages to find the joke in the material.

Jackie seems to come up against people who don’t understand how to be cool in the way that Jackie does, which makes for compelling and sometimes comic contrast: with the uptight Jenkins as the jittery lawyer; with Gandolfini as a fellow hitman, who seems about to go off the rails; and particularly with McNairy, as the only member of the targeted trio who actually gets to meet Jackie. It’s a wonderfully grungy ensemble, though Dominik may have taken it a step too far with Mendelsohn’s perpetually perspiring junkie.

“Killing Them Softly” reminds me at times of the severely underappreciated “The American,” though less given to pungent silences. It’s an art film rather than a thriller – but one in which the action is always startling and always packs a punch.

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