'Killing Them Softly': Stylish but Slight

Andrew Dominik's new film, starring Brad Pitt, is most notable for reminding us of the crime-genre contributions of George V. Higgins.

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The Weinstein Company

A mobbed-up card game. Three would-be thieves with more appetite than intelligence. A shotgun. These ingredients formed a recipe for tragedy in the classic third-season Sopranos episode "Amour Fou." Twenty-eight years earlier, they'd combined to similar effect in the 1974 George V. Higgins crime novel Cogan's Trade. I can't say whether the TV episode was directly inspired by the book. But it's hard to imagine the existence of The Sopranos itself—or for that matter, much of contemporary crime fiction, on page or screen—were it not for the profound, if largely forgotten, genre contributions of Higgins.

Like its source material, the movie is stylish, profane, intelligent, and diverting. But it's disappointing that the result is not more substantial.

An heir to Hammett and Hemingway and Chandler and Cain, Higgins, who died in 1999, has somehow fallen out of the hard-boiled firmament. Yet the tough, literate, dialogue-driven idiom he helped invent is everywhere in ascendance: David Mamet and Elmore Leonard have cited him as major influences (the latter calls his first book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, "the best crime novel ever written"). Groundbreaking entertainments such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and the collected oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino have all followed closely in the vernacular path beaten by Higgins.

Remarkably, until now just one of Higgins's two-dozen-plus novels had made it to the big screen, a 1973 adaptation of Eddie Coyle directed by Peter Yates. But with his new film, Killing Them Softly, Australian director Andrew Dominik has rediscovered Cogan's Trade—with its card heist and doomed losers—and updated it for the economic apprehensions of the Obama era.

Like its source material, the movie is stylish, profane, intelligent, and eminently diverting. But as much as it is a delight that Dominik has disinterred Higgins's work, it is a mild disappointment that the result is not more substantial. The director's previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was among the most underrated of the last decade: as rich and evocative an elegy of America's outlaw era—and the movies it inspired—as any since Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. (And, no, I don't imagine it is a coincidence that one was directed by an Australian and the other by an Italian.)

Killing Them Softly, by contrast, is sly and sharp, yet somehow slender—more cinematic short story than novel. An aging bottom-feeder (Vincent Curatola) hires two younger ones (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) to hit a card game, with the expectation that the game's proprietor (Ray Liotta) will be the one to take the fall. But this expectation is not met, and violent chastisements inevitably ensue. These are administered, at the behest of a mild-mannered mob cutout (Richard Jenkins), by an enigmatic gun for hire (Brad Pitt) and his supplementary muscle (James Gandolfini).

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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