“Killing them Softly” is an expression I never understood but I’ll guess that if one needed to kill softly, Brad Pitt’s Jackie would be the right man for the job. “Softly,” writer-director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade,” (itself a follow-up to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) is the Weinstein Company contender for an Academy Award this year. It’s not going to make it, I’ll dare say, but the movie works alright and it includes two really good performances.
The first one is by Pitt, whose Jackie is an enforcer–as low-profile and methodical as they get. He gets called in after a card game is robbed by a couple low-lives: one who’s down on his luck (Scoot McNairy) and the other (Ben Mendelsohn) a two-bit druggie who gets by perpetrating the same dog-snatching scam as the one we saw in “Seven Psychopaths.” The card game is run by Markie (Ray Liotta), a small-timer known to have paid others in the past to rob his games and split the profits with him.
Did he do it again?
The movie is an odd mix of tough guys, macho talk, slow motion executions, beatings, and drugs (very Richie-Tarantinoesque) with a recurrent reference to the financial climate of 2008. Footage of the Obama-McCain election and Bush’s approval of bail-out money add to the narrative backdrop. Apparently the recession has hit criminals just as hard, although all you can really wonder is, haven’t criminals always been hard-up for cash?
Dominik moves the film at an entertaining clip, thankfully; every once in a while the suspense ratchets up while at other times conversations between characters are so riveting that you can’t help but be carried along with them, especially the dialogues between Pitt and Richard Jenkins–he plays Jackie’s handler–which involve money matters (no surprises there) struck with an edgy overtone about honor among thieves.
James Gandolfini, playing another hitman Jackie hired to help with the job, provides the film’s second noted performance, playing a wholly repulsive criminal whose life has become a living, breathing tragedy. He makes us feel pain, reducing his character Mickey to a broken empty shell of a man.
In the end, the premise of “Softly” never gains traction. That said, the intelligent screenplay and the aforementioned worthy performances help limit the damage.