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.