KILLING THEM SOFTLY (MA)
Stars: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy
Director: Andrew Dominik
Brad Pitt takes a good 25 minutes to arrive in Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, pulling up in his car to the testimony of Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around. This has become Pitt's MO - to hold back, to quietly take everything in. His character, a diligent hitman named Jackie Cogan, has much the same outlook. He doesn't like emotion getting in the way of his work.
A recurring theme in this blackly comic ensemble crime drama is that no one gets what he wants. This goes for Jackie, who must work up close; certainly for his victims who, invariably, were scrambling away to satisfy their own wayward hopes; and the American people as a whole, who (as this story set in 2008 unfolds) are preparing to choose between Barack Obama and John McCain while their financial system implodes.
In 1930s Warner Bros gangster films such as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, crime was a means of getting ahead, a warped reflection of the American dream. In Dominik's evocative movie, in which finely pitched conversations are punctuated by bursts of doleful violence, criminals are just workers in a foundering business. Getting whacked is as easy as getting laid off.
The plot updates George V. Higgins's 1974 Boston crime novel, Cogan's Trade (another Higgins adaptation, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, gave Robert Mitchum his last great role the same year). However, there's something timeless about Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his scabrous junkie pal, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of New Orleans petty criminals desperate, or dumb enough, to rob a Mob-protected card game at the instigation of Johnny (Vincent Curatola).
The dialogue is rich and mordantly funny, as if Quentin Tarantino had stayed with the world of Jackie Brown.
Frankie and Russell pull off the robbery, in a vividly tense sequence, which demands Jackie's deployment.
The bosses, according to Richard Jenkins's circumspect intermediary, have a ''total corporate mentality'' and as President Bush tries to restore faith in the markets, so Jackie points out that the card game's overseer, Markie (Ray Liotta), has to be killed to restore confidence in the racket's integrity. Jackie is Ben Bernanke with slicked-back hair and a shotgun.
The filmmaker uses a vintage soundtrack for simple juxtaposition and indulges moments of technical virtuosity, such as a slow-motion shooting in which Jackie's face stays fixed in focus to avoid vicarious thrills, but the lasting mood in this masculine world is of decay and finality. Jackie's mentor, Dillon (Sam Shepard, seen briefly in a flashback), is dying and New Orleans looks decrepit.
Then there's James Gandolfini's despairing Mickey, a hitman Jackie asks to be brought in as a subcontractor. Heavy-set and reflective, he is not the man Jackie remembers. A jail stretch for gun possession looms and Mickey's life is slipping from his grasp. In a compelling scene, Mickey ruminates contrarily on preserving his marriage or the escort he loves, alternating between self-pity and guilty anger. It's a terrific performance, and throughout it Dominik cuts to Pitt, who, without saying a word, shows Jackie's realisation that Mickey is a risky asset. In 2004's Troy, Pitt shared a scene with Peter O'Toole's grieving father and he looked unsure and bereft of ideas. However, middle age has made the long-time leading man quiet and perceptive; you can tell what Pitt's characters are thinking.
''You do the best you can,'' Mickey laments to Jackie, but Killing Them Softly doesn't grow sentimental with the notion; it stays hard of heart and tightly edited (Mickey's presence is noticeably truncated).
Doing the best you can, the picture says, means doing what's best for yourself. That's the pitch Jackie sells Frankie, who is the closest the movie has to a conscience and thus has to pay a heavy price. Dominik's film is bleak but nonetheless perceptive and arresting. Crime still pays, just not like it used to.
Killing Them Softly opens Thursday.