Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is a bleakly comic, brutally Darwinian gangland saga that at times comes close to being this year’s “Drive.” It also does something that, if you’re from around these parts, seems downright perverse. It takes the Boston out of George V. Higgins.
Higgins, of course, was probably the best crime novelist this city has produced — Dennis Lehane would be the first to agree — and he’s the source for what’s still the best Boston crime movie, 1972’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” is based on the 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade,” which, like all Higgins’s books, is steeped in local flavor. When someone gets a beating in “Trade,” it’s not just in a parking lot but in the parking lot behind the old Stearns department store off Route 9 in Chestnut Hill. A hood meets a contract killer not at any restaurant but at Jacob Wirth’s on Stuart Street (the menu is discussed). It’s the kind of book where your fingers smell like stale beer just from turning the pages.
Dominik (“Chopper,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) throws all this out because he has bigger fish to fry. Like the entire sociopolitical history of America. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The plot in “Killing Them Softly” is intentionally small-time. A crooked businessman (Vincent Curotola) hires two lowlifes (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-run poker game, after which the powers that be bring in a fixer named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to find out who did it and what to do about it. A number of bodies later, Cogan’s done and so is the story.
It’s about his professionalism and everybody else’s lack thereof, and morals have nothing to do with it. Anyone who has read Higgins knows the books are three-quarters dialogue — foul-mouthed, pungent, comically stupid, almost Joycean in its complexity — and “Killing Them Softly” retains most of that talk, the characters’ engines idling before occasionally revving into the red. You might think the movie’s aping Quentin Tarantino, but it’s the other way around: Higgins, along with Elmore Leonard, is where Tarantino got most of his shtick. (Higgins, for his part, got his dialogue from the goons he met while working as a journalist and an assistant United States attorney.)
A good actor can do marvelous work with this gift of words, and Dominik, who adapted the novel himself, hands the dialogue out like it’s Christmas. McNairy and Mendelsohn are appallingly funny as two scuzzballs you hope never to meet in real life, the former wheezy and almost touchingly naive, the latter just plain mean. Richard Jenkins, as the mob lawyer who’s Cogan’s contact, creates a fussy little professional fascinated by the criminality he’s rubbing up against.
Ray Liotta doesn’t get a lot of dialogue as Markie Trattman, the unlucky proprietor of the card game, but he doesn’t need it at this point; one look into those bleary goodfella eyes tells us everything we need to know. “Killing Them Softly” coasts on banter only to erupt in moments of violence that almost burn your hair off, so electrifyingly does Dominik stage and shoot them. That beating mentioned above has a sickening paparazzi immediacy to it, and a later hit on a nighttime boulevard (Comm. and Chestnut Hill avenues in the book) is a slo-mo setpiece as beautiful as it is repugnant. In a sense, the film’s a high-end nature documentary: Life in the Animal Kingdom.
Cogan’s the star of the story and Pitt’s the star of the movie; the two click together like custom-fitted machinery. Late in the going, someone says to Jackie, “I don’t know who the [expletive] you are,” to which he responds, “Very few guys do.” That’s why he’s good at his job (i.e., killing people); the character’s engaged, shark-like efficiency stems from doing only what’s necessary, even when the mooks keep throwing him curveballs. Pitt doesn’t showboat, relying on minimal gestures and the watchfulness of his eyes. You like Jackie even as you’re horrified by him.
Late in the movie, James Gandolfini shows up as Mickey, a hit man who has seen much better days. He’s everything Cogan isn’t, stuck in a funk of booze and nostalgia, brooding over women, functionally useless. All of Gandolfini’s scenes breathe a terrible sadness, and while “Killing Them Softly” appears to slow to a crawl whenever Mickey’s onscreen, it’s actually coming close to its point.
Which is that the weak suffer at the hands of the strong, and anyone who says otherwise is selling you something. Aside from a few local references — Somerville, Wollaston, some place called “Have-erhill” — Dominik pulls “Killing Them Softly” out of Higgins’s Boston and sets it in a generic urban wasteland in November of 2008. (The film was actually shot in New Orleans, with post-Katrina detritus adding to the sense of decay.) The economic meltdown and the final stages of the presidential campaign are all over the news; during the robbery sequence, as the players contemplate their lost winnings, George W. Bush is on TV telling the country about the hole it’s in.
Dominik’s aiming for mood rather than overt symbolism: The film’s background, often literally out of focus, is ripe with disaster and the hollow bromide of “Hope and Change,” a slogan that means less than nothing to the characters. The conceit borders on the arrogant and often crosses over, yet “Killing Them Softly” pulls off its reach in the last scene, when Cogan (in a speech notably not in Higgins’s original) lets the mob lawyer know exactly what he thinks the election of a new president means and doesn’t mean.
As performed by Pitt with gunmetal scorn, the scene seems absurd at first (what, Cogan’s suddenly an expert in American history?), yet the final lines slam shut like a prison door on the audience’s fingers. By making a film entirely without illusions about the way this country does business — at the top as at the bottom — “Killing Them Softly” ironically stays true to “Cogan’s Trade” and Higgins’s cauterizing view of human nature. Let the likes of Steven Spielberg renew our faith in the communal ideals with which we lull ourselves to sleep. This movie’s the anti-“Lincoln,” and it jeers in your head long after the lights come up.