'Killing Them Softly' hits the mark

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:52 AM ET

Like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Andrew Dominik's crime thriller Killing Them Softly is rarely just about what its gangsters, hitmen and losers do on-screen.

Instead, the film is about what compels them to do it, how they talk about it later and who they really are as a result. It is a character study set among scumbags -- one of them played with dazzling charisma by Brad Pitt. The enterprise is taken to higher levels by its insights into human nature. It is intelligent, caustic and too cool for school. You compulsively cannot stop watching, even when the going gets tough and violent. Despite the title, few victims are killed softly. There is plenty of brutality and blood.

The self-contained yet explosive Pitt plays a hitman who is hired by persons unknown. We meet only his supervisor, a mob lawyer played by Richard Jenkins, as well as a fellow enforcer whom James Gandolfini channels with angst and pathos, as if giving his Sopranos character a fresh twist of the knife. Pitt's job is simple: Clean up the human debris in the wake of a heist at a mob-protected poker game. The culprits are hapless fools, thugs who should have known better.

Meanwhile, the film cleverly parallels the making and taking of money in the American mob world with the frauds perpetrated in the current U.S. economic crisis. "America is not a country," Pitt's Jackie Coogan opines, "it's a business." TV news footage of U.S. President Barack Obama talking on the subject serves as a storytelling device. Lucky for Dominik's film that Obama was re-elected. Otherwise, this device might be distracting.

While Killing Them Softly falls short of Pulp Fiction classic status, it bursts with zinger dialogue, dark comedy and off-beat action that you don't get in most genre pieces about the criminal underworld. And the cast led by Pitt, Gandolfini, Jenkins and Ray Liotta, along with young turks such as Vincent Curatola, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, is absolutely first-rate. That gives writer-director Dominik the on-screen charisma he needs to sell this nasty socio-political tale.

Dominik adapted and updated Killing Them Softly from George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade. Higgins, who died in 1999, was a Boston journalist, legal academic and lawyer who (among many career turns) worked to stifle organized crime in Massachusetts. When he turned to writing novels, Higgins wrote about what he knew most intimately: Crime.

Cogan's Trade was set in Boston, as were other Higgins novels such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins' notoriety as a novelist grew from his authentic dialogue. His fictional criminals sound like they stepped fully blown out of the real world. That element is echoed in Dominik's screenplay. Even with the revisions in time and place -- because the story is now set in contemporary New Orleans -- Killing Them Softly is Higgins-like in its gritty realism.

bruce.kirkland@sunmedia.ca

This film is rated 18A


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