Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 10:50 AM
Guys in cars, talking. Guys in bars, talking.
And, now and then, as a kind of punctuation to all that chat, guys being beaten bloody and shot dead
That’s the George Higgins way. Dialogue is king in his books: hard-edged, cynical, revealing. And that’s how things play out in “Killing Them Softly,” the best adaptation of a tale by the late hard-boiled crime-fiction writer since “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” In fact, it’s the only adaptation of a Higgins book since “Eddie” in 1973. It’s been worth the wait.
The guys doing the talking in “Killing,” based on Higgins’ “Cogan’s Trade,” are, for the most part, lowlife screw-ups. And, fittingly, they talk too much. In “Killing,” two scroungy dim bulbs (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) brag about robbing a mob-sponsored card game. Blabbermouthitis in these circumstances is a fatal condition. It brings an angel of death down upon them.
This particular flint-eyed angel is a mob enforcer named Jackie Cogan. Played by Brad Pitt with a scruffy goatee and a greaser slicked-back ’do, he’s a practical-minded man of many well-considered, words. When suspicion falls on a loose-lipped loser (Ray Liotta), Jackie’s employers want him beaten, not killed. Jackie disagrees. The guy has already knocked over a card game once before, and even though he didn’t do a second job, he now needs to be eliminated as a warning to others, says Jackie. So why put him through a beating when he’s going to be killed in the end anyway. Wasted effort. Jackie is all about efficiency.
The best conversations in “Killing” are between Jackie and a mob go-between played by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins’ character is a bean counter who questions the need for two shooters to handle this particular job. Jackie insists the job requires a second triggerman. Well, have him fly coach, counters Jenkins.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik, who last worked with Pitt on the brilliant but little-seen “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” expertly captures the flavor of his Higgins source material. But he’s set the story during the 2008 presidential campaign with President Bush and candidate Barack Obama on the radio and TV in the background talking about the financial meltdown as a device to deliver a somewhat overobvious critique of American culture and politics.
Jackie mocks Obama’s soaring we’re-all-in-this-together rhetoric by telling Jenkins “I’m living in America and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now (expletive) pay me.”
Soren Andersen: email@example.com
“Killing Them Softly,” with Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on a book by George Higgins. 97 minutes.
R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use.