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 really 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 (star of Dominik's haunting, poetic "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), 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, including one in which they sit at a bar and quietly catch up on everything from work to marriage to alcoholism; they're so different in tone from everything else, they feel like they're part of an entirely separate movie. Gandolfini's character is the only one who feels like a complete and complicated person: brazen and abusive but also sentimental and deeply insecure.
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 (and once got caught trying to rob it himself). 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. It's all very painstaking and cool-looking (the work of the gifted cinematographer Greig Fraser) but it also feels like part of a prevalent cynicism, given the film's heavy-handed message.
"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 during the previous hour and a half.
"Killing Them Softly," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use. Running time: 97 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.