Melinda Sue Gordon

James Gandolfini stars as an out-of-town hit man in "Killing Them Softly."

Movie review: 'Killing' builds parallels between finance, crime

Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 18TICKET

"Killing Them Softly" draws a parallel between the world of street thugs and hit men and that of bankers and financiers, with a story about a crisis of confidence in a small gambling market in the fall of 2008.

As Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric fills the soundtrack, we see a ratty-looking guy, who looks as if he'd slept in his clothes, walking in an abandoned stadium. The question is, which one is the real America – the one we hear about in the speech, or the one we're looking at?

Guys get greedy and do stupid things. In this case, a hood-businessman (Vincent Curatola) gets the bright idea to hire two idiots – knuckleheads you wouldn't trust to squeegee your windshield – to rob players at a mob-run high-stakes card game. The immediate result? It makes everybody afraid to play cards. Something must be done to rescue the economy.

Brad Pitt plays the architect of the solution. He tells the representative of the card players, a mild-mannered corporate type (Richard Jenkins), that they need to kill the robbers, but also the innocent party that most people wrongly think did the robbery. That second suggestion contains some of the brilliance of "Killing Them Softly:" When you have a financial crisis, confidence must be restored no matter what.

"Killing Them Softly," based on the George V. Higgins novel "Cogan's Trade," was adapted and directed by Andrew Dominik, who made one of the finest Westerns of the last 50 years, "The Assassination of Jesse James." "Killing Them Softly" is not a masterpiece on that scale, but it's safe to say that there is not one moment in the film that doesn't represent the director's carefully considered thought, whether we're talking about acting values, camera placement, sound or style of presentation.

In one scene, a guy has a life-and-death conversation with an associate who is high on heroin, and Dominik films it through the consciousness of the stoned person. So between lines of dialogue, Dominik shows us the kaleidoscopic vortex that the stoned guy keeps getting sucked into and out of. The effect is funny – much of "Killing Them Softly" is extremely funny, but never in a cute or a self-consciously clever way. The humor here doesn't gloss over character; it reveals it.

Brad Pitt is in ecstasy here, despite the cool demeanor throughout. This is an actor who is never better and never happier than when he gets to be seedy, slick his hair back and wear a leather jacket.

James Gandolfini, as a hit man from out of town, appears in a pair of long scenes. He looks as if it would be very easy to hurt his feelings – and would be a big mistake. There might be nothing more scary in the contemporary screen than the sight of Gandolfini smiling, while his eyes are not smiling at all.

The original novel that formed the source of "Killing Them Softly" was published in 1974. That means that all the parallels between the story and the financial crisis are the creation of the writer-director. These parallels at first seem arbitrary, but the more you think of them, the more appropriate and heartfelt they seem.

Together they make "Killing Them Softly" into something with an extra edge – something deeper and more ambitious than just another crime picture.


★ ★ ★

Cast: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins Director: Andrew Dominik

97 minutes

Rated R (violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use)

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