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Review: Brilliant scenes aren’t quite enough to save Killing Them Softly

Revisiting 1973 crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle seems like a good idea at first. The gritty film based on George V. Higgins’s novel unsympathetically portrays the amoral interactions of low-level gangsters and law enforcement agents in Boston, with Robert Mitchum’s aging Coyle dangling from strings held by a coercive FBI agent. The movie stands as a time capsule of early ’70s atmospherics — think The French Connection without the car chase and climactic shootout — and cinematic conventions of the time. It’s too dialogue-heavy to maintain the attention of the modern moviegoer, which somehow escaped director Andrew Dominick when he decided to mine Higgins’ work for a successor to Eddie and found Cogan’s Trade, retitled Killing Them Softly for the adaptation.

That’s not to say Killing Them Softly doesn’t have a lot going for it. Dominick established himself as an auteur with The Killing of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, sustaining a menacing tension throughout that film with music, pacing and dialogue that may have been slow-burning but was never boring. The new film contains mind-blowing, hyperrealistic scenes that push the boundaries of stylization more than any other domestic film since The Matrix, but those scenes come between long stretches of exposition that test our patience.

Brad Pitt is the lynchpin of this film, but unlike Eddie Coyle, his Jackie Cogan holds all the strings. Dominick substituted New Orleans rather than Boston in order to take advantage of Louisiana’s tax incentives, and the overcast skies could have come right from Beantown in 1973. In direct homage to The Friends of Eddie Coyle, he also has characters spend a lot of time in cars, explaining much of the backstory and plot points through conversation.

Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) runs a card game that he once set up for a robbery, and he was stupid enough to brag about it. Bar owner Johnny (Vincent Curatola) convinces dimwitted Frankie (Scott McNairy) and junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) that if they hold up the game again, Markie will be blamed. Somehow, the two keep a roomful of toughs in their seats as they force Markie to hand over the cash put up by the players. Essentially, they set up their own death sentences, which Jackie is charged with by card game investor Driver (Richard Jenkins).

Several key sequences of violence are heavily stylized. Slowed down, shown repeatedly and from several angles, with much detail paid to sound design, they are brilliant scenes that demonstrate the genius of director of photography Greig Fraser. But the director takes great pains to make an allusion between the crime world and the financial industry, heavy-handedly driving the point home with news broadcasts from 2008. Killing Them Softly deserves praise for its bold experimentation and reverence for an underappreciated classic, but the gaps between the astonishing cinematography and excess exposition would have been better filled with more imaginative advancing of the story itself.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, directed by Andrew Dominick, rated R, 97 mins