by J.R. Jones
Killing Them Softly may not have provided first-nighters with the cuff-shooting, Ocean's Eleven joyride they were expecting, but its low-rent dialogue scenes are pretty faithful to the George V. Higgins novel on which it's based, originally published in 1974 as Cogan's Trade. Higgins earned a law degree from Boston College and spent seven years fighting organized crime, lastly as an assistant attorney general for the state of Massachusetts, before he went into private practice in 1973. By that time he'd aleady published his first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which launched Robert Mitchum on a comeback of sorts when he played the title character onscreen. Cogan's Trade was Higgins's third novel, and by that time he'd already mastered the obscure plotting and meticulously rendered goonspeak that would become his stock-in-trade.
"Then I start looking at them other guys. . . . I see them, I was still thinking, and they're all, most of them, at least're smoking. And them guys that're doing the grass, you know? Very heavy on it, and they slow down some. I was, I was keeping track of things. I could see it happening to me, it was happening to them, I got it a little bit and I begin to see, that's what, them other guys, they started on it, it was probably just a little bit for them, too, when they start. You start forgetting things. All you want, you don't care about things, you know? Very funny thing."
Higgins set his story in Boston in the early 70s, but Pitt and Dominik set theirs in Louisiana during the 2008 presidential campaign and financial collapse (George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama all appear on TV screens, providing an ironic and completely unnecessary political angle). Other than that, though, they've preserved the grimy, philosophical discussions from the book. There's a fine assortment of two-character scenes: between Jackie Cogan (Pitt), the freelance hit man called in to clean up after the second robbery, and his gray, prosaic mob contact, referred to only as the driver (Richard Jenkins), or between Jackie and Mickey (James Gandolfini), another hired assassin who's drinking and whoring himself into a stupor. And just when you think the movie is going to be submerged in a sea of talk, someone gets beaten so hard or shot in the head at such close range that the impact pushes you back in your seat. That's essentially the reverse of a crowd-pleasing heist flick, in which neither the words nor the bullets penetrate.