The last time someone filmed a novel by George V Higgins was in 1973, when Peter Yates adapted Higgins’ first book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, with Robert Mitchum giving a career-best performance as a two-time loser forced to choose between a lengthy jail sentence and loyalty to his underworld ‘friends’. The spirit of that downbeat, depressingly authentic depiction of life among the criminal underworld’s bottom-feeders hangs over Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, like a pall of stale smoke over a poker table.
Adapted from Higgins’ 1973 novel Cogan’s Trade, published when America was in recession, but updated to the more recent economic dip of 2008, the film is the second pairing of writer-director Dominik and actor-producer Brad Pitt, and if the film falls short of the high benchmark set by their last collaboration, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – well, most films do. Here, Pitt cuts a sympathetic figure – unsurprising, among such squalid company – as Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer who, if he must kill, prefers to do so from a distance (hence the title). Things kick off when Cogan is hired (for less money than he wants – there’s a recession on) to clean up the mess made by two small-time crooks, who have recklessly robbed a high-stakes card game run by local gangster Markie Trottman (Ray Liotta) – possibly on Trottman’s own orders.
The casting of Ray Liotta, and indeed James Gandolfini as an abusive, alcoholic hitman, is emblematic of Dominilk’s surprising lack of invention, or perhaps nerve, in key areas. The copious dialogue never quite achieves the David Mamet quality it aims for, and anyone who thought the Johnny Cash song ‘When the Man Comes Around’ was a kick-ass choice for the trailer will be dismayed to see it used in the film itself, along with other crashingly obvious music choices, as ham-fisted as the omnipresent real-world news coverage which, rather than placing the action in a social context, merely dates it. There are some good scenes, even one or two great ones, but unlike Assassination, when the smoke from all the killing clears, this film evaporates with it. ★★★