"You're getting 20 years and a bath," says a cop to a dirty, bedraggled smack addict he's busting in the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade. It's a more generous prediction than most George V. Higgins characters get, and it's one of the only great lines from the author's third book that didn't make it into Andrew Dominik's flinty, funny, furious film adaptation.
The New Zealand writer-director's version is called Killing Them Softly — a weak title, but not much worse than Higgins' original (even if star Brad Pitt's recent Chanel debacle is what the phrase now calls to mind). It's set not during Watergate's coda but deep inside the crater of the 2008 financial crisis and that fall's presidential election. Skidding across a landscape pocked with McCain and Obama billboards — and going-out-of-business signs, and ramshackle neglect — Higgins' small-time hoods and midlevel operators are in for a different kind of bath.
The warnings are audible all around. Their conversations compete with, or snake through, the loud speechifying of the moment, which sound mixer Leslie Shatz has built brick by bricolage into a Spectorian wall of rhetoric. Car radios and bar TVs blare the too-big-to-fail drone of talking heads and politicians. And because most of those cars are old Detroit dreadnoughts, and all the watering holes are dives, and the wardrobe is timeless denim and leather and the phones all look coin-operated, the persistent white noise cuts a Nixon groove. Yet despite the residual '70s vibe from Higgins' book, Dominik (given a big assist by rising cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also shot the soon-to-open Zero Dark Thirty) has made the first period picture about the dim, cloudy dawn of the Obama years.
The economic crisis at Killing's core is a far simpler matter than derivatives and credit-default swaps. It's Markie Trattman's mobbed-up poker game. Trattman (Ray Liotta) robbed it once himself, which makes him an ideal fall guy for a second heist. Or so believe the dull-witted wannabes behind the new crime: Frankie (Scoot McNairy); his friend, the previously mentioned heroin stooge Russell (Ben Mendelsohn); and dry-cleaning non-mogul Squirrel (Vincent Curatola, much missed since his time as The Sopranos' Johnny Sack). If the credit crunch is about to screw the rest of the country, these luckless ex-cons are about to be well and truly fucked. A couple of briefcases half full of small bills? It's not the Powerball, but it sounds good to them. Sounds good to a lot of people, even now.
There's fallout, though, and of course it starts with a man in a suit. In the book, he has a name, but here we know him only as a corporate face (Richard Jenkins, blessedly at his Richard Jenkins-iest), the better to frustrate hired gun Jackie Cogan (Pitt). Cogan, something of a small-business job creator, outsources part of his enforcement duties to New York Mickey (James Gandolfini, magnetically dissipated).
The intersections of these six characters (along with Trattman, for whom Liotta draws from his special reserve of feral grace) form the supremely dude-centric mechanics of Killing Them Softly, basically the Dr. Pepper Ten of movies. What drives Dominik's film isn't kinesis, however, but a uniquely masculine inertia. The stolen guns, the hulking engines, the shaky honor code — these things are just camouflage to mask a lonely and self-pitying ache, a personal Great Depression that'll do till the fiscal one gets there.
Higgins' men are almost exclusively of the too-small-to-succeed stripe, especially when it comes to women. Cogan lets Mickey talk out some major marital disappointments, and Russell and Frankie compare notes on dates who instantly regretted being with them. The scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini, and between McNairy and Mendelsohn (both excellent), are less about the job and more about the confusions of sex, with Pitt becoming straight man, analyst and maternal (not paternal) figure. (The lone speaking part for a woman in this movie is a hooker, but Linara Washington makes the most of her moment.)
A similar dynamic animated Dominik's previous movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another testosterone derby centered on Pitt. But the inertia there felt unintentional; for all its beauty, the thing just kind of sat there. Killing Them Softly, running about an hour shorter than Jesse James without seeming rushed, is streamlined and utterly confident. It's been almost 40 years since Higgins' first book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, became Robert Mitchum's last great film. Killing Them Softly isn't a sequel, but it's Dominik's first great movie.