Remember the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? I wish writer-director Andrew Dominik had. Right about the time he decided to turn the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade into a big-screen allegory for America’s financial collapse. Few works of crime fiction feature dialogue more beautifully hard-boiled or shady dealings more shrewdly observed, and none cry out less for fixing.
It’s the story of the mess three Beantown lowlifes make when they rob a mob card game, and what happens when out-of-town muscle arrives to clean it up. The movie’s early scenes set the stage smartly with “The Sopranos”’ Vincent Curatola as the bottom feeder with a brainstorm. As he explains to his two young associates, the game he has in mind is the one mob game it wouldn’t be suicide to hold up, because the guy who runs it held it up himself years before and somehow got away with it. When it happens again, the old-timer figures, that’s the guy the bosses will come after.
The hired guns are Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a couple of dim, scuzzy bulbs who could almost be cousins of the criminal halfwits Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare immortalized in Fargo. They pull off the job in spite of themselves, only to realize their mentor must have meatballs for brains, because the powers that be end up coming after both the fellow they robbed and them. In Higgins’ universe, the mob works in mysterious ways.
Dominik’s film benefits from primo wise-guy DNA. In addition to Curatola, it costars Ray Liotta. The original goodfella plays the doubly baffled Markie Trattman, who can’t believe anyone would be crazy enough to hit his poker game, and then can’t believe his superiors plan to make him pay.
And who flies in from Florida to push that button but James Gandolfini as New York Mickey, a veteran hit man who turns out to be more intent on destroying himself. The actor delivers a mesmerizing series of monologues in the service of a character coming slowly unraveled as he holes up for days in a hotel room drinking himself into a paranoid stupor. “I can’t go out,” he announces finally, sealing his own fate.
Picking up the pieces and restoring order all around falls to Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, an enforcer increasingly frustrated by the modern mob’s corporate, decision-by-committee management style. The picture reunites the star and the Australian director, who worked together on 2007’s vastly underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But lightning fails to strike a second time. Pitt can play smooth criminals in his sleep at this point, but Dominik proves nowhere near the top of his game.
While Killing Them Softly boasts a number of stunning visual flourishes and some of the most darkly hysterical banter in recent movie history, the film is undercut by a clumsy device. Not content simply to tell a great gangster story, Dominik decided — for reasons I can’t begin to fathom — to evoke the economic meltdown of 2008.
In adapting the Boston-based book, the filmmaker first relocated the action to post-Katrina New Orleans (something he never makes clear to the audience) and then switched the time frame to the weeks just before and after the presidential election. Throughout the picture, televisions and radios incongruously carry images of Bush, McCain and Obama along with dire updates on the fiscal freefall. You’ve never seen such well-informed wise guys.
Like the heist at the center of Killing Them Softly, the topical theme is a spectacular miscalculation. The parallel between crime and the economy is never successfully elucidated, so Dominik comes off simultaneously as being heavy handed and having nothing to say. By the time Pitt reacts to a broadcast of Obama’s victory speech by announcing, “America isn’t a country; it’s a business,” you may find yourself wishing these hooligans would raise a little more hell and watch a little less C-SPAN.