Writer-director Andrew Dominik's “Killing Them Softly” is an incredibly stylish genre exercise set in the world of mobsters, junkies and lowlifes, but it's also trying incredibly hard to be About Something.
Not content merely to be profane, abrasive and occasionally darkly amusing, it also wants to be relevant. And so Dominik has taken the 1974 crime novel “Cogan's Trade,” by George V. Higgins, and set it in the days before the 2008 presidential election, just as the U.S. economy is in the midst of catastrophic collapse.
Every television and radio is tuned to then-candidate Barack Obama or President George W. Bush addressing the nation — even in bars and thugs' cars — with the volume cranked way up, commenting all-too obviously on the film's action.
As if we couldn't decipher for ourselves that organized crime functions as its own form of capitalism, “Killing Them Softly” turns on the mini-implosion that occurs when a couple of idiots rob a mob-protected card game.
Scoot McNairy plays the jittery ex-con Frankie; his inept partner in crime is an Australian heroin addict played by Ben Mendelsohn. Both are aggressively grungy. As they get away with briefcases full of cash, we hear Bush in the background, asking rhetorically, “What does this mean for your financial future?” Could it be that obvious?
The corporate types at the top of the syndicate, represented by an uptight, humorless (and nameless) Richard Jenkins, want to restore order, so they ask Jackie Cogan, an enforcer played by Brad Pitt to investigate the heist and punish the perpetrators.
This is one of those effortless Pitt performances that exemplify how beautifully he manages to be both a serious actor and a superstar; the slicked-back hair, aviator sunglasses and gold chains are a showy shorthand to signify he's a dangerous guy, but the consistently surprising choices he makes with the rat-a-tat dialogue reveal his character's intelligence.
Jackie brings in an old colleague, veteran hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini), to take out the robbers and send a message to the rest of the criminal world. The scenes these two actors share are by far the film's best.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is the artfully graphic pummeling some of these characters take, particularly Ray Liotta as the guy who runs the card game in question. The hard thwack of a fist against a jaw matches the pummel of rain and the splatter of blood. Bullets fire from a handgun in super-slow motion, piercing the raindrops, then a car window, then someone's skull.
“America's not a country, it's just a business,” Jackie declares in the film's final monologue, a message “Killing Them Softly” already had hammered pretty hard.