“America is not a country. It’s just a business.”
So says Jackie, alias Brad Pitt, in “Killing Them Softly,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday. Pitt -- who produced the movie -- plays a greedy modern-day hitman hired by the mob to bump off the culprits in a poker-table holdup. As the financial crisis permeates organized crime, he refuses to let bosses use the occasion to lower his fees, and routinely curses at the powers that be in Washington, D.C.
Sneering along with him is New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik (whose 2007 “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” also starred Pitt). Dominik mockingly sprinkles his film with feel-good speeches by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and even by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
“We’re looking for stories that say something about our time, and who we are,” Pitt said at a Cannes news conference. “I certainly felt upon reading this that this was making a commentary.”
“We were certainly at the apex of the mortgage loans debacle, and people were losing their homes right and left,” said the actor-producer. He was wearing a beige suit and V-neck T-shirt, with his dark-blond hair virtually shoulder-length.
Sitting next to Pitt, Dominik said that in his view, “crime films are about capitalism.” While adapting a 1970s George V. Higgins novel into the movie’s script, he saw parallels with the global recession: “an economic crisis in an economy that was supported by gambling,” happening “because of a failure of regulation.”
Politics pops up right from the start of the film. “The American promise is alive,” cries an Obama voiceover during the opening credits, as the camera cuts intermittently to a barren and littered urban landscape.
Ill-shaven ex-prisoner Frankie (the gifted Scoot McNairy) is on his way to meet Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a grubby Australian with a fancy dog. Russell, it transpires, makes money by snatching and selling pure-breds.
Together, they visit a burly Italian-American who hires them for the poker job, certain it’ll be blamed on the guy who did it the last time: the gambling supervisor Markie (Ray Liotta). In a flashback, we see Markie ogling dollar bills on the card table, then getting punched after the heist by hired hands (including Sam Shepard in a cameo).
The holdup goes through, with Frankie and Russell wearing flesh-colored nylons over their faces, and a TV set in the background broadcasting a Bush speech about money-market mutual funds. Next, in a never-ending scene, Markie gets brutally punched and kicked, to thumping sound effects.
So far, the film seems just another Italian-American mobster story -- a kind of Martin Scorsese Lite. The director deliberately holds back the humor, and his film meanders.
Enter Pitt, a screwball character with deadpan lines. In the passenger seat of a car, he’s recruited by the mob’s staid envoy to go after the thieves, and is promised $15,000 -- good money “in this economy.”
Jackie is frank with his recruiter. He talks about how victims can get “touchy-feely” and call out for their moms. Hence his tendency to “kill them softly, from a distance.”
Outperforming Pitt in their scenes together is James Gandolfini (from “The Sopranos”), who plays a foul-mouthed fellow hitman devoted to hookers and booze. “It’s like my hobby,” he says of prostitutes, bringing real-life rawness to his cartoonish part.
Humor and political sarcasm save the day, making Dominik’s picture caustically entertaining and a 2012 festival highlight. The filming and scoring are also good. When a target is shot at the wheel of his car, you see each bullet suspended in mid-air in stylized slow motion. As glass shatters into a constellation shape, a soulful jazz voice sings “Love Letters Straight From the Heart.”
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on auctions and Warwick Thompson on theater.
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