By CARY DARLING
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The anvils of obviousness rain down so hard and fast in Killing Them Softly, Australian director Andrew Dominik's meditation on low-rent crime and American decline, that it might as well be a Coyote-Road Runner cartoon. A very bloody, self-serious Coyote-Road Runner cartoon with some strong performances trapped in a movie that thinks way too highly of itself.
The heavy-handedness is evident from the first frame when audio from an Obama hope-and-change campaign speech is juxtaposed with the crumbling landscape of a no-name town in some quadrant of the Northeastern American Rust Belt. It's the autumn of 2008, the economy is in free fall, and two shambling figures - Frankie (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and Russell (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn from Animal Kingdom) - meet to talk about what their next scam is going to be.
Russell knows a basement-level hood who has the bright idea to hold up an underground gambling operation run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with it because the other gangsters don't trust Markie and will think he staged the robbery himself for some easy cash.
Of course, no one needs a weatherman to see which way this ill wind is blowing. An enforcer, Jackie (Brad Pitt, who also co-produced), is brought in to get to the bottom of what happened and dish out the appriopriate, bullet-backed punishment.
When combined with Dominik taking a page from Quentin Tarantino's playbook by scoring his scenes of brutal violence with innocuous American pop – It's Only a Paper Moon or Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries – Killing Them Softly becomes a piping-hot cup of cliché.
What: Killing Them Softly
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Running time: 97 minutes
Rated: R for violence, strong language, sexual references, some drug use