"Killing Them Softly" is overkill

REVIEW: Brad Pitt's film is a visual treat with fine performances, but pounds home its points with a relentless lack of subtlety.

'We're all on our own," says Scoot McNairy, who plays charmingly dim robber Frankie in the crime drama "Killing Me Softly." Later, Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, an enforcer sent to knock off some thugs gone rogue, paraphrases that emotion, lamenting a country gone to hell.

Oh, the angst of the professional hit man who speaks like an existentialist and behaves like a nihilist.

Based on the 1970s Boston-set novel "Cogan's Trade," considered one of crime writer George V. Higgins' best books, the film shifts the action to the New Orleans wasteland created by Katrina.

Things begin promisingly. Frankie and Russell (versatile Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a Mob-protected card game run by Markie (fetchingly seedy Ray Liotta), another lowlife higher up on the food chain. But after Pitt arrives to straighten things out, calling for backup from a New York hit man debauched to the edge of sanity (James Gandolfini), the story begins to unravel into a series of long one-on-one chats. It's "Mean Streets" meets "My Dinner With Andre."

Written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, the film's look and performances are unflinchingly realistic. Cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patricia Norris create a convincing environment of gritty, trash-strewn grayness brightened by the occasional gush of blood. Unlike the flashy glam mobsters of Scorsese-land, these mopes lead lives as dreary as their surroundings. They talk about women with predictably mindless misogyny; Dominik was wise not to add any romantic partners (save the fleeting appearance of an ill-treated hooker). With this crowd, they would only be unconvincing distractions.

But fine acting, arty camerawork and compellingly realistic New Orleans locations are nearly drowned out by wincingly obvious metaphors. Everywhere anybody goes, radios or TVs are blaring politics. Then-President Bush defends dubious economic policy while Obama -- contextualized as a naive Candide -- spouts hope and change (are a bunch of guys playing high-stakes illegal cards really going to have C-SPAN droning in the background?). The crooks all drive vintage, gas-wasting American muscle cars or sedans -- rusty, dented, some ready for the scrap heap. OK, we get it. These ridiculous, heavy-handed parallels are unworthy of a first-year film student, but typical of some foreign filmmakers who revel in painting American corruption and decay with a brush so broad it flattens complexity and credibility.

Clever dialogue can make up for one-dimensional characters, and amped-up action can disguise a thin plot. Here, we get too little of either. The pacing often grinds to a halt, dissipating the already meager tension.

In a movie populated by soulless assassins and inept robbers, the characters don't have to be likable. They should, though, be at least occasionally intriguing, or have a surprise or two up their sleeves. Pitt, who co-produced and stars, is the planet around which everything else is supposed to orbit, yet seems only partly present. McNairy, with his nasal whine and goofy malleability, is the most fun to watch of the bunch, and this should be a breakout role for him. The rest of these guys aren't quite boring, but they have no passion, grimly slouching through Gomorrah from one bloodbath to the next. Even mob liaison Richard Jenkins, master of quietly commanding attention, grows tedious with such facile lines as "This is a business of relationships." A meditation on a life of crime, it ain't -- all the more disappointing because Dominik's previous achievement, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," also starring Pitt, was original, sophisticated -- and subtle.

With a dream cast and such high production values, Dominik had the chance to make a more intense and memorable mark.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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  • KILLING THEM SOFTLY

    ★★ out of four stars

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

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