Killing Them Softly opens with snippets of a Barack Obama speech intercut with scuzzy low-level criminal Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walking to meet his equally grimy partner Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and the movie continues to overlay political speeches throughout its fairly bare-bones crime story. Although based on a George V. Higgins novel (Cogan’s Trade) from 1974, Killing Them Softly is rooted in the uneasy political climate of 2008, as the financial crisis spirals out of control and Obama and John McCain face off for the presidency. Clips of speeches and news broadcasts sometimes overwhelm or displace the dialogue in certain scenes, and while writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) may see Higgins’ story as a potent allegory for institutional corruption, in practice it doesn’t really come across.
The movie’s plot is simple: Frankie and Russell are hired to rob an underground card game, and the syndicate that runs the game brings in a hitman (Brad Pitt) to take them out. Dominik doesn’t throw in any narrative curveballs, but he does make some bold stylistic choices (in addition to the ever-present political commentary) that mostly prove distracting. James Gandolfini shows up for two extended scenes as a fellow hitman with serious emotional problems, and while his performance is often affecting, it fits awkwardly into the movie, and has essentially no bearing on the story. That’s emblematic of Dominik’s overall approach—he delivers some striking elements that never add up to a cohesive whole.