For a big star, Brad Pitt chooses to waste his talent in boneheaded ways that never cease to amaze me. For every single solid, carefully written, value-packed entry in his oddball career—like Se7en or Moneyball—you get two or three choices only a moron could make. To a growing list of dumbbell duds like Tree of Life, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Mexican—not to mention his role as Achilles in Troy,a film that still gives me nightmares—you can now add a filthy, pretentious, brutally violent and utterly pointless load of rubbish called Killing Them Softly.
This cynical, nihilistic, blood-splattered junk reunites Pitt and Aussie writer-director Andrew Dominik, who collaborated on the long-winded western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I rather liked the independent spirit of that peculiar revisionist footnote to outlaw history, but this time nothing works. Mr. Dominik, who writes like a sophomoric pothead and directs with a sledgehammer, has coughed up the kind of incomprehensible gangster gibberish that is usually rubber-stamped by Britain’s no-talent Madonna reject Guy Ritchie. But if Killing Them Softly belly flops as noisily as I predict it will, Brad Pitt can’t blame anyone. He co-produced it. Reverting to his dirty grunge look from Fight Club, he plays a crime enforcer called in by the mob to blast the heads off as many unknown actors as possible with a sawed-off shotgun. This action is set against the 2008 Obama-McCain election and the Wall Street meltdown, which are used as subtly as a Gatling gun to point out political and socioeconomic metaphors for the criminal direction in which America is heading. Instead of a plot, there’s an endless stream of tirades about immoral hoodlums and the death of idealism that lampoon American democracy as an antediluvian lost cause. Instead of narrative fluency, there’s a plague of mob hits, each trying to outdo the one before in terms of depravity and carnage. Did I mention that none of it makes one bit of sense?
Let’s see. Can I get this repellent schlock straight? A brain-dead goon named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his creepy, crack-addicted Australian pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, who babbles in an accent nobody can understand), knock over an illegal poker game with masks and guns. Everyone in the mob suspects Markie (Ray Liotta), the thug who runs the game, of sponsoring the robbery, because he’s fleeced criminally sponsored card games in the past. The real villain is a porcine, small-time wannabe named “The Squirrel” (Sopranos alumnus Vincent Curatola). Big-shot mafia bosses recruit cold, sober, leather-jacketed Angel of Death Jackie Cogan (Mr. Pitt) to kill off the two ex-cons who stole the money, the idiot who hired them and the innocent but immoral card-game manager Markie—the last for mere blood sport—restoring the underworld’s cash-flow imbalance just like the Feds who invaded Lehman Brothers. Acting as a grim-jawed link between the petty mob and the super mob is a brainy mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins, looking greener than the dead coroner he played on HBO’s Six Feet Under) who tries to keep Cogan’s fees down.
Cogan is not above bringing in help to slaughter a few more victims, but the hit man he hires (James Gandolfini) is too burned out by booze and prostitutes to be much help. So we are subjected to a series of choreographed balletic massacres, including a long, nauseating scene in the rain in which more thugs beat Markie to raw liver while his teeth, ribs and brains splash all over the asphalt. Mr. Pitt prefers “killing them softly,” from a distance, not up close where they beg and plead for mercy. But the best-laid plans don’t always work, so he pulls up next to Markie’s car and blows his head off while Ketty Lester croons the ballad “Love Letters” on the car radio. A lot of disgusting bleeding, vomiting, shooting up with heroin and terrible self-indulgent acting follows, with almost no member of the cast surviving to the final credits except Mr. Pitt. Every thug is motivated by money. There isn’t one character in the film with a sense of integrity, decency or higher purpose, and every crime is accompanied by car radios and TV sets following the heated 2008 campaign for a new America of hope and change.
The film, based on a 1974 book called Cogan’s Trade that now turns up only in rummage sales, is set in South Boston but, for some reason known only to the people who sign the checks, was filmed in New Orleans. For all the cinematic advantages offered the camera by one of the most photogenic cities in the world, all Mr. Dominik chooses to show are ugly alleys, freeways at midnight and seedy hotel rooms. For all you see of authentic New Orleans atmosphere, the film might as well have been shot in Hackensack, N.J. After Mr. Pitt wipes out his final victim, Barack Obama appears again to applause with his televised speech about “We rise and fall as one nation, as one people.” And that, of course, is the morbid joke. The point of this vile, cynical and ultimately preposterous film is that America is reeling from spiritual numbness and ethical paralysis, and optimism is a game for fools. The underworld crime enforcer’s final line: “This isn’t a country, this is America, and America is a business. So pay me.” Blackout. Just in time for a Merry Christmas.
Anyone up for a snappy game of Russian roulette?
Running Time 97 minutes
Written by Andrew Dominik (screenplay)
and George V. Higgins (novel)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins