Crime is money: Pitt makes a ‘Killing’ as mob hit man

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Art - By John Bei­fuss

From the very start, gang­ster movies equated crim­i­nal in­spi­ra­tion with eco­nomic in­jus­tice.

D.W. Grif­fith’s “The Mus­ke­teers of Pig Al­ley” (1912), cred­ited with be­ing the first gang­ster film, is set in mo­tion by a stolen wal­let.

The clas­sic early sound thrillers of Cag­ney and Ed­ward G. Robin­son were prod­ucts of the De­pres­sion, the tick-tick stut­ter of the ticker tape be­ing the di­rect pre­cur­sor to the rat-a-tat chat­ter of the Tommy gun.

Forty years later, “The God­fa­ther” made a di­rect link be­tween the Cor­leones and cap­i­tal­ism, and a “crime pays” mes­sage is re­peated ev­ery week on HBO’s “Board­walk Em­pire.”

Adapted from a 1974 novel called “Co­gan’s Trade,” by the great Ge­orge V. Hig­gins, “Killing Them Softly” throws this theme in your face like a fist. It pum­mels you with the no­tion as re­lent­lessly as two thugs in the movie beat up Ray Liotta, a dif­fer­ence be­ing that you prob­a­bly won’t vomit blood.

The story is set in 2008, and writer-di­rec­tor An­drew Do­minik would have us be­lieve that ev­ery un­der­world han­gout in New Or­leans at that time was equipped with a TV or ra­dio that was tuned to re­ports of the Obama pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, the Gold­man Sachs col­lapse or the Bush cor­po­rate bailout. The news talk is as ubiq­ui­tous as oxy­gen, but with the op­po­site ef­fect: It sucks the life out of you.

This styl­ized sound­track is as ob­vi­ous as a text­book pas­sage un­der­lined in yel­low Magic Marker in other ways, too. The spacey gui­tar of the Vel­vet Un­der­ground’s “Heroin” be­gins to play when a junkie shoots up. The crooned 1933 record­ing of “It’s Only a Pa­per Moon” emerges, im­prob­a­bly, from a mur­der vic­tim’s car ra­dio, so we can hear Cliff Ed­wards sing: “It’s a Bar­num and Bai­ley world/ Just as phony as it can be.” And can we please have a mora­to­rium in movies on the use of Rick Ru­bin-era Johnny Cash, es­pe­cially “When the Man Comes Around”? (Here, the song in­tro­duces Brad Pitt, just six months af­ter it per­formed sim­i­lar duty in the trailer for “Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter.”)

And yet ... and yet ... I’m ea­ger to see “Killing Them Softly” again. It con­tains mul­ti­ple vivid per­for­mances; its highly tex­tured evo­ca­tion of an al­most en­tirely male mi­lieu of hard­scrab­ble crim­i­nal hope­less­ness is con­vinc­ing, dis­tress­ing and pleas­ing to the eye, in its gritty de­tail; it’s the rare movie that doesn’t at­tempt to re­deem or “save” its characters; and its ob- vi­ous­ness may prove, on re­peated ex­po­sure, to be more au­da­cious than un­wise.

Do­minik’s pre­vi­ous movie, the 160-minute “The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), was as pa­tient and tac­i­turn and epic and mys­te­ri­ous as the 95-minute “Killing Them Softly” is brisk and talky and com­pact and bla­tant; “Jesse James” was one of the most in­sin­u­at­ingly pow­er­ful movies of the past decade, so I’m will­ing to be­lieve that the as­sertive­ness of the new film t k

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More twisty than com­plex, “Killing Me Softly” un­folds as a sort of lethal game of tag, as lowlife hoods Frankie (Scoot Mcw Nairy) — who has the air of a fall guy — and smar­taleck Rus­sell (Ben Meni del­sohn) — an Aus­tralian junkie and dog­nap­per (he’s dis­gust­ing but fun, like Keith Richards) — knock off a high-stakes card game op­er­ated by a mob­ster (Liotta). A well-spo­ken crime f boss (Richard Jenk­ins) en­lists con­fi­dent hit man

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WE­IN­STEIN COM­PANY

Here comes theh booom: Brad Pitt in “Killing Them Softly”

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