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Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt in "Killing Them Softly."

Cash flow crisis

Killing Them Softly

Those who like to take the whole family to a movie over the holidays have no lack of fine choices to pick from this year: Life of Pi, certainly, and Lincoln, and the upcoming Les Miserables.

Killing Them Softly is not one of them.

Imagine that David Lynch had followed up Eraserhead with a Reservoir Dogs type crime film. Fun and edifying for everyone from the kids to Grandma? Not by a long shot. But if you like crime movies and you like them gritty, grimy, and ostentatiously unsentimental, this is the movie for you.

It’s based on Cogan’s Trade, an early novel by Boston’s George V. Higgins. This is only the second of Higgins’s books to have been filmed (including the classic The Friends of Eddie Coyle). That surprises me: his books are so dialogue heavy that they often read like screenplays, and his stories are as engrossing as those of Elmore Leonard, whose entire canon has probably been under development in Hollywood at one time or another.

It begins with a robbery planned by three men, one of whom only appears to be smarter than the others because he’s older and sits behind a desk. Their target is a high stakes card game, part of a gambling operation that funds the local criminal organization. They think they have a fool-proof scheme in which another guy will take the blame. But the mob sees through that and targets them for revenge: After all, if you let one robbery go by, in no time at all everyone and his brother will think they can get away with it.

I’ve condensed it some, but the plot isn’t really much more complicated than that. Higgins was always more interested in portraying characters than their crimes, and Killing Them Softly is a showcase, both for the actors in the cast and for Kiwi director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

Brad Pitt has top billing and the title role of the enforcer sent in to clean up the mess, but he isn’t really the lead in this ensemble piece. (He doesn’t even show up until a third of the way through, at which point he gets a memorable entrance to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”) Richard Jenkins is typically dry as his contact, a mob functionary who bemoans the corporate mentality of his new bosses. Ray Liotta is the fall guy and subject of a beating so brutal I was only able to watch it over the top of my glasses (a benefit of being nearsighted), thought even the sound effects were excruciating.

The less well-known cast members are equally effective, including Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Vincent Curatola as the trio of thieves. James Gandolfini, looking more than ever like an overweight Jimmy Griffin, has a lot of screen time as a New York assassin that Cogan wants to farm out part of the work to, but his scenes consist primarily of him musing on his decline: You could lose them without doing anything to the movie besides making it shorter.

As for Dominik, who adapted the screenplay as well as directing, he indulges himself in ways that don’t always help the story. Filming in some New Orleans neighborhoods that may never fully recover from Katrina, he renders a vision of a decrepit urban hell that recalls Eraserhead. Updating the story from the early 1970s to 2008, he likens the workings of this new mob to the economic collapse of that year—not a bad idea, except that he belabors it to death, with radio and TV reports of the panic springing up in the unlikeliest places. It’s as if he felt the need to compensate for so many dialogue heavy scenes with more action: the aforementioned beating, a slow-motion shooting that is so detailed it verges on parody. Less black-comic than simply hard-boiled, Killing Them Softly is a litmus test for how much holiday jollity you want to forego.

Watch the trailer for Killing Them Softly

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