"America's not a country, it's just a business." While uttered in the closing moments of writer-director Andrew Dominik's gangster pastiche Killing Them Softly, this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer motif smacks you in the head beginning with the film's disorienting open shot, narrated by a disembodied 2008 presidential campaign speech by Barack Obama. While George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel Cogan's Trade was set in the seamy 1970s Boston underworld, Dominik updates the tableau to post-Katrina New Orleans, the 2008 presidential race and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
Of course, depicting mob syndicates as a subset of American capitalism has long been a pop culture staple. It's no small wonder, then, that Dominik populates his cast with actors meant to evoke memories of previous cinematic touchstones, including Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) and no fewer than three regulars from The Sopranos—including James Gandolfini—while Richard Jenkins plays a consigliere for a group of faceless mob minders. (Robert Duvall evidently wasn't available.)
Dominik also reteams with Brad Pitt, who collaborated on Dominik's previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was a masterful examination of America's affinity for its criminal heritage. Here, Pitt is mesmerizing as gang enforcer Jackie Cogan, who is brought in to "manage" the fallout after three swindlers conspire to rob a mob-sponsored card game.
The film comes alive whenever Jackie is brandishing a sawed-off shotgun, interrogating a poor dolt (Scoot McNairy) involved in the heist or just bemoaning the complexities of mob bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Dominik adopts Higgins' affinity for using pages of dialogue to obliquely illustrate events rather than chronicling them as they occur. It's a literary conceit that proves infuriating on the screen when what's being said (and said and said...) isn't all that interesting and often relegates Jackie to the role of passive listener.
What's left is a film with high-minded posturing but little style or substance. Heck, it's not really a gangster flick. It's a portrait of an America ruled by avarice, where the have-nots are fraught with vice and the haves are left to jockey for an even bigger piece of the pie. Lars von Trier would be proud.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dreams and delusions."