There are no good guys in Killing Them Softly. There's no honor among thieves, no code of ethics that keeps the film's seedy underworld from caving in on itself. It's a world where compassion means shooting someone in the head instead of beating him to death.
That's not to say there are no sympathetic characters in this stylish, cynical crime flick from director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). There's Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a likeable guy who runs high-dollar card games for the mob. When Markie gets the bright idea to orchestrate a robbery at one of the games—all that cash lying around was just too tempting for a guy like Markie—and then brags about it afterward, everyone agrees to let it slide, as long as it never happens again.
Markie isn't that dumb, but Frankie (Scoot McNairy) is. Newly paroled and not particularly interested in finding honest work—not that there's any to find in his decaying, recession-struck neighborhood—Frankie gets suckered into a plan that is pretty much guaranteed to end badly. Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) figures that, should another card game get knocked over, everyone will assume Markie is responsible and go after him instead of looking for the real culprits. He hires Frankie to do the job; it's a two-man gig, so Frankie, in turn, recruits an Aussie heroin addict named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
The robbery is a prolonged, tightly staged, and almost painfully tense set piece that establishes the tone for the rest of the movie. It's a talky film that only occasionally (and spectacularly) erupts into jarring scenes of brutality, but almost every scene hums with the threat of violence. That promise of bloodshed increases exponentially when Brad Pitt shows up, his entrance accompanied by Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a quietly terrifying mob operator charged with getting to the bottom of the card-game heist and making sure no one ever does it again.
Killing Them Softly is based on George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel, Cogan's Trade. His character's name might not have made it onto the marquee in this slick adaptation, but this is definitely Pitt's film. His performance reminds me a little of fellow movie star-turned-actor Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe; Jackie is certainly not as crackers as Joe, but he's charming, likeable, and utterly menacing. Jackie is an amoral murderer—you certainly can't root for him, but man, is he ever fun to watch. He doesn't mind killing, but he's embarrassed by the "touchy feely" aspects of an up-close hit. He prefers to "kill 'em softly, from a distance."
Killing Them Softly probably isn't the kind of movie you're expecting it to be. It's a much quieter, more grown-up affair than other recent crime flicks, more interested in the exchange of words than bullets. When the killing starts, it's anything but soft. There's a breathtakingly brutal beating that spares the viewer nothing, using slow motion, accelerated motion, and sickening sound affects to make sure we don't miss a single punch, and a slow-motion shooting that plays out in a shower of broken glass and brain matter. And while these moments of bloodshed are few and far between, Dominik makes sure that even the most static scenes are visually stunning; an extended episode that shows a junkie simply trying to keep up with a conversation is arguably the movie's most striking set piece.
Besides the title, Dominik has made one other important change to Higgins' novel, moving the setting from the '70s to the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Like the gangsters who inhabit his film, subtlety isn't really Dominik's game here. Nearly everywhere the characters go, television sets broadcast speeches by George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama, each decrying the financial mess the country is in. This is a cynical crime film for a cynical era, drawing constant comparisons between America's corporate infrastructure and the ruthless syndicate that employs Jackie and his downtrodden colleagues who have no problem torturing and murdering a friend, as long as it's a paying gig. Killing Them Softly's bleak final scene plays out against a backdrop of fireworks and sparklers as people celebrate Obama's election, but there's no hope here. It's just business as usual.