There's no missing the venomous cynicism in "Killing Them Softly," a grimly witty crime thriller that works in a mode familiar to fans of both Quentin Tarantino and "The Sopranos." But there's more than jazzy movie-cool cynicism at work here. Director Andrew Dominik's film is defiantly nihilistic: anti-capitalism and anti-America but also anti-government and anti-bureaucracy. It's audacious, shocking and supremely confident. This is a movie that believes in nothing except itself.
Theaters showing the movie might consider posting a warning for viewers: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. The movie certainly has.
"Killing Them Softly" is a movie about crime and punishment and how the latter often fails to fit the former. The core of the film is a terse, violent tale of criminal stupidity: Two scuzzy schemers named Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively) rob a mob-run card game at the behest of an older acquaintance named Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola). Amato picks the game because he thinks the blame will be pinned on someone else: the manager, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), a midlevel underworld figure who once robbed his own game and got away with it.
Yet things don't work out quite as planned: An unnamed mob functionary played with dazzling dryness by Richard Jenkins brings in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dispose of the mess and all those involved: Frankie, Russell, Amato — and Trattman.
For Cogan, it's just good business. Sure, Trattman didn't do it. But the average man on the street thinks he did. So he has to go. As do the actual perpetrators.
From there, it's just a matter of getting the job done. The movie paces back and forth between winding scenes of darkly funny lowlife dialogue and bursts of brutally operatic violence that effectively blends shock, art and grotesque horror.
What makes Mr. Dominik's movie more than just another mordant tale of dishonor among thieves is that he has set the film at the end of 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. So Amato describes the post-robbery gambling scene as "economic collapse." While the card game is being robbed, we hear President George W. Bush talking the public through the effects of the collapse. As the movie opens, we hear clips from Barack Obama's 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention in which he declares that "each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will" — a notion that the movie flatly, angrily rejects.
The overlay of an epic financial-system collapse onto a story of mobster gambling shenanigans is both brilliant and far too obvious. The juxtapositions are too on-the-nose, the metaphorical match-ups too cute. It's a surprisingly subtle crime film delivered in an unsubtle thematic wrapper. Yet it works anyway — not only in spite of the metaphorical heavy-handedness, but partly because of it: It's not that Mr. Dominik doesn't trust his audience to get what he's saying. Just like Cogan, he wants to do more than deliver his message. He wants to rub it in.
TITLE: "Killing Them Softly"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel "Cogan's Trade" by George V. Higgins
RATING: R for bloody violence, drug use
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS