The concept of organized crime as a dark mirror image of American capitalism was firmly established in The Godfather 40 years ago. But it seems to be a hot new idea for writer-director Andrew Dominik, who beats it to death throughout his new movie, Killing Them Softly. The picture is a talky noir set in the meltdown year of 2008. It's littered with Obama campaign sound bites and radio bank-bailout reports, and the thudding political allegory keeps poking you in the face while you're trying to keep track of the story. (Even the film's title, an apparent reference to remotely guided U.S. bombing sorties, is intended to wake us up to what's going on in the world.)
The movie is based on a 1974 crime novel by George V. Higgins. The book was set in Boston, and while the picture was shot in New Orleans, the characters all talk like they just flew in from Dorchester. There's some remarkable violence (a brutally beaten man blows bloody chunks out of his ruined mouth) and a big showoffy slo-mo rubout in a storm of bullets, blood, and shattered glass. But these action jolts are outnumbered by long stretches of gab. Fortunately, it's a stylish gab, in a neo-hardboiled manner, and the actors make the most of it.
Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play Frankie and Russell, two ex-cons in search of post-release employment. They're drawn into a scheme to knock over a mob-run high-stakes card game—a plan that would normally be suicidal, except that Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), the guy who oversees the gambling action, once knocked over the long-running game himself, and then unwisely blabbed about it. In the event of a second ripoff, Markie would be the natural candidate to take the fall.
Bumblers though they be, Frankie and Russell do manage to pull off the heist; and mob higher-ups do indeed target Markie as the culprit. A mob lawyer (Richard Jenkins) brings in a coolly efficient cleaner named Jackie (Brad Pitt) to teach Markie the last life lesson he'll ever learn. Jackie is a cynical realist; he accepts that this has to be done, just for appearances' sake, even though he has learned that Frankie and Russell are the real malefactors.
Jackie decides to subcontract this mess out to a New York hitman named Mickey (James Gandolfini). Mickey was once a top whack specialist, but when he arrives on the scene it's clear that he has seriously deteriorated. He's now a fat nasty drunk with an insatiable letch for whores and a full complement of personal problems about which he blubbers at length. Mickey was busted recently and may soon be headed for prison. He has put his wife through this wringer twice before, and this time he suspects she won't be waiting for him when he gets out.
Gandolfini's griping sessions with Pitt are peaks of scuzz pungency. His Mickey is a man who could be said to have lost his way if he'd ever had one in the first place, and Pitt—quietly radiating star presence—lies back to let him bellow and squirm (and viciously berate a hooker, played by sparky Linara Washington, who is the only woman of any consequence in the movie). Thanks to the loose, semi-improv dialogue, we feel for Mickey—even if what we mainly feel is disgust.
Pitt, who can hold the screen without saying a word, gives the movie's grubby complications some clarity, and he keeps the story on track. Unfortunately, he's also the mouthpiece for the director's simpleminded political agenda. His Jackie is repelled by the heedless destruction wrought by his mob overlords (read: corporate oppressors) and dismayed by the sorry state of the hapless lowlifes (read: oppressed workers) with whom he must associate. At the end, he attempts to rationalize his own complicity as an enforcer in such an unjust social setup. "This isn't a country," he says. "This is America. And America is a business." Start spreading the news.