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Killing Them Softly' with a big stick

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Gangster movie suffers from overly aggressive message

There's nothing inherently wrong with using a film to send a 'message.' In fact, with the right combination of circumstances, a movie can manage to be effective both as an entertainment and as a conveyance of some larger truth.

However, when a movie allows itself to be overwhelmed by the message it is intended to convey, both the movie and the message wind up significantly diminished.

If one judges solely by the trailers, 'Killing Them Softly' a film directed by Andrew Dominik ('The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford') from his own adaptation of George V. Higgins's novel 'Cogan's Trade' is a taut gangster thriller featuring Brad Pitt in one of his typically delightfully 'high-end intellectual lowlife' roles.

What you actually get, however, is nothing less than a ham-fisted, heavy-handed indictment of America. With gangsters.

It's the story of a pair of low-level hoods who knock over an illegal poker game. Frankie (Scoot McNairy, 'Argo') and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, 'The Dark Knight Rises') learn that a local crook named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, 'Breathless') recently arranged for his own poker game to be robbed. They go in and rob it again, assuming that Trattman will get the blame.

However, when the robbery results in an overall decline in the general criminal economy, the powers that be decide that something needs to be done. That's when a mob middle manager (Richard Jenkins, 'Darling Companion') calls in a specialist a professional killer named Jackie Cogan (Pitt, 'Moneyball') to clean up the mess. He calls in an old hit man acquaintance (James Gandolfini, 'Violet & Daisy') and gets down to business.

There is nothing subtle about this film. The first words we hear are lifted straight from a 2008 campaign speech from then-Senator Barack Obama and from there it is off to the races. The film also set in 2008 spends most of its time making sure that the audience understands that the film understands that America is in dire economic straits. Not only do these gangsters particularly Pitt's character spout paragraph-long condemnations of the system at the drop of the hat, but director Dominik hammerfists the point home by interspersing actual speeches from both Obama and President Bush throughout even going so far as to have televisions in the backgrounds of scenes playing clips from said speeches.

Yeah; these criminals are a tortured metaphor for the failing economy of the United States. Because we all want to watch that.

I'm not going to say that there's nothing worthwhile here. Truthfully, the film almost succeeds despite all the preachy faux-intellectualism. A lot of the credit for that near-success has to go to the performances. Pitt never seems happier than when he's playing a smarter-than-most member of society's dregs; this role is in his wheelhouse and he attacks it with gusto. McNairy and Mendelsohn elevate roles that are really just glorified plot devices. Jenkins is always great; he's at his officious best here. And Gandolfini is a brash force of nature, chewing the scenery with obvious delight.

The film's violence is brutal and surprisingly graphic; it's unsettling, but also meticulously rendered. It makes for a visually striking movie. Combine that with the quality of performances and it almost makes up for being beaten over the head with a message for over an hour and a half.

Almost.

'Killing Them Softly' could have been a decent gangster film with a nice noir feel and some excellent performances. Instead, it's a tiresome extended metaphor that feels played before the opening credits have finished rolling. Suffice it to say, the title feels particularly apt.

1.5 out of 5

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