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).
And that's pretty much all there is to it. Raymond Chandler once wrote that, in the hardboiled genre, "the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one that made good scenes." Dominik seems to have taken this lesson to heart: Killing Them Softly unfolds primarily as a series of conversational exchanges (many lifted directly from the Higgins novel) punctuated by spasms of graphic violence.
Quite a few of the exchanges—in particular those between Pitt and Jenkins—are extremely good. Pitt glides through his role like a vengeful abstraction, as remote and untouchable as Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy or Alain Delon in Le Samourai. At the other end of the evolutionary spectrum, Gandofini submits a portrait in self-pitying decadence, his mouth a sour purse of chipped teeth and venereal tongue. It's hard to shake the sense that this might be the endpoint of the assassin he played so long ago in True Romance, after a couple more decades of drinking and whoring and death. (Full circle: "Amour Fou" also referenced that role, when Gandolfini's Tony was attacked with a corkscrew.) Elsewhere, Jenkins exhibits his customary harried, vulnerable wit; Liotta, his amphibian stare, rictus cackle, and aura of impending catastrophe. Sam Shepard has an all-too-brief cameo, and relative newcomer Scoot McNairy demonstrates promising range on the heels of his impeccable performance in Argo.
Dominik directs with panache, relocating the story from Boston to a nameless, post-industrial Anytown (the film was shot in New Orleans, though you'd hardly know it) and setting the action in 2008, on the cusp of the financial collapse. But while this permits him some fun with the soundtrack (the varied tunes on offer include "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," "Money (That's What I Want)," and "I Think This Town Is Nervous"), Dominik overreaches somewhat in his bid for topicality. Smatterings of political speech—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Hank Paulson—are overheard frequently throughout the movie. And though they set up a worthy punch line (one that self-consciously echoes the opening of Blood Simple), their deployment could have been pared down considerably.
Indeed, despite its hospitably succinct 97-minute running time, Killing Them Softly still feels a bit lax and overlong. (An earlier cut reportedly ran to two and a half hours; one has to wonder what was left on the cutting-room floor.) With this film, Dominik has done us a commendable service in recalling the crime genre's outstanding debt to George V. Higgins. Now it falls to another filmmaker to do a more memorable job of paying it back.
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