If you need proof that casting is everything, Killing Them Softly delivers it. This noirish crime story about hired killers would be an entirely different, less enjoyable film without Brad Pitt as an expert hitman. I’d say he’s working against type, but really, isn’t his type these days Mr. Dad-of-Six-Little-Jolie-Pitts, with a side of philanthropy? Or the guy talking mumbo-jumbo on those Chanel ads? Any fictional character is likely to be different from that. Still, good-guy Pitt as a walking, talking lethal weapon is a pretty good joke for a film to start with.
The plot swirls for a while without him. The film was shot in New Orleans, but you’d hardly know it. This is generic low-rent semi-organized crime territory, Any-Movie-Mob-Town, USA. There, small-time junkies (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) try to pull off a job against Ray Liotta’s character, who runs a poker game. Things go very wrong, and lead to some graphic, sickeningly bloody retaliation, until Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to clean up the metaphorical mess.
Cogan’s long-haired look is just a few unstyled inches from Pitt’s on his grungier real-life days (or at least the ones so often photographed), but he is the guy who claims he wants to kill his subjects “softly,” before they actually see it coming, an approach that sets him apart from most movie hitmen. He also carries most of the film’s occasional stabs at wit. Pitt doesn’t disappear into this role, as he can at his best (Babel or Moneyball). He plays with it, and lends the film some sparkle.
Cogan takes on one murder himself and delegates a second to another pro, played by James Gandolfini. Like Pitt, but in a much smaller role, Gandolfini makes his scenes leap off the screen as a hitman in freefall – one foot out of prison, drinking, calling in prostitutes, all with heavy-hearted sadness. In an even smaller part, the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins elevates his role as the middleman who hires Cogan; as written, the character seems like every mob lawyer ever seen on screen.
Stylistically the film is curiously flat. Even the gloomy scenes in the rain, meant to be evocative and referential, seem like slavish copies of noir. That’s disappointing, because writer-director Andrew Dominik’s last film, 2007's The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (with Pitt as James) is fantastic and underrated. Visually beautiful (shot by Roger Deakins), it’s a morally thoughtful and ambiguous immersion into the very souls of people who inhabited some legendary characters of the old West.
Killing Them Softly is far more ordinary. Updating a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, Dominick adds a veneer of the 2008 economic crash, bookending the film with thudding reminders of it. As the film starts we hear President Obama’s voice over and see flying garbage and debris as one of the junkies walks through a desolate street, with Obama and McCain billboards marking the time as 2008. The film ends with Obama on television talking about the economic bailout, and a mordant line from Pitt. But nothing in the middle really flows from that time or place, so the economic theme simply adds a layer of pretention. Killing Them Softly aspires – and pretends -- to be trenchant and arty; it is slight and pulpy fun.