Review: 'Killing Them Softly' mired in heavy-handed seriousness

James Gandolfini in 'Killing Them Softly'

James Gandolfini in "Killing Them Softly"

Three dumb guys who think they're smart rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse. An enforcer named Cogan is ...

Rating: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use

Length: 100 minutes

Released: November 30, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik

More info and showtimes »

The anvils of obviousness rain down so hard and fast in "Killing Them Softly," Australian director Andrew Dominik's meditation on low-rent crime and American decline, that it might as well be a Coyote-Road Runner cartoon. A very bloody, self-serious Coyote-Road Runner cartoon with some strong performances trapped in a movie that thinks way too highly of itself.

The heavy-handedness is evident from the first frame when audio from an Obama hope-and-change campaign speech is juxtaposed with the crumbling landscape of a no-name town in some quadrant of the Northeastern American Rust Belt. It's the autumn of 2008, the economy is in free fall, and two shambling figures — Frankie (Scoot McNairy, "Argo") and Russell (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn from "Animal Kingdom") — meet to talk about what their next scam is going to be.

Russell knows a basement-level hood who has the bright idea to hold up an underground gambling operation run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with it because the other gangsters don't trust Markie and will think he staged the robbery himself for some easy cash.

Of course, no one needs a weatherman to see which way this ill wind is blowing. An enforcer, Jackie (Brad Pitt, who also co-produced), is brought in to get to the bottom of what happened and dish out the appropriate, bullet-backed punishment.

Brad Pitt is a mob enforcer in the new film "Killing Them Softly."

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Brad Pitt is a mob enforcer in the new film "Killing Them Softly."

Written by Dominick, from a novel by George V. Higgins, "Killing Them Softly" is best when portraying criminal camaraderie. Mendelsohn and the empathetic McNairy show off an edgy, nervous chemistry and sense of humor while James Gandolfini, as a down-on-his-luck hit man Jackie hires, digs into a deep well of sadness beneath his character's boozy bluster. They overshadow Pitt, who doesn't have much to do but look alternately bored and angry and then kill people.

For whatever reason, no one here as bought a new car since the heyday of land yachts and muscle cars, so the streets are boulevards of beat-up but still magnificent American steel.

It's all set against a backdrop of dire economic headlines with speeches from then-president Bush, Obama, and commentators talking about the financial crisis. It's as if everyone in this grey, dying city only watches C-Span and listens to news radio.

Yes, we get it: the world of street-level thuggery we're immersed is meant to parallel presumed crimes in bank boardrooms and government chambers. And we all reside in a perpetual cultural twilight where nothing — from the crime to the cars — is as glamorous and wonderful as it used to be.

When combined with Dominik taking a page from Quentin Tarantino's playbook by scoring his scenes of brutal violence with innocuous American pop — "It's Only a Paper Moon" or "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" — "Killing Them Softly" becomes a piping-hot cup of cliché.

That's too bad because Dominik made the riveting Australian crime film "Chopper" in 2000, the movie that launched the career of Eric Bana, as well as the well-received "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" which also starred Pitt.

But in his attempt to make some broad, grand statement about contemporary America, Dominik may have brought the heaviest anvil down upon himself.

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