The good guys are scarce in Killing Them Softly, a taut gangster picture that instead showcases varying degrees of villainy.
That challenge is handled adeptly by filmmaker Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and his cast, who capably navigate a story filled with betrayal, greed, double-crosses and revenge.
The film opens with a plot by bumbling robbers Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) hired to rob a high-level card game run by New Orleans mobster Markie (Ray Liotta).
The fallout from the crime is felt on all sides of the criminal underworld in the crumbling city, which means ruthless hitman Jackie (Brad Pitt) is sent in to clean things up, gaining revenge on the thieves while protecting his own interests amid shady characters on all sides.
Dominik’s script, based on a novel by George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), features plenty of macho posturing and crackling verbal exchanges, with its emphasis on dialogue making the ultraviolent shootouts and confrontations — which are consistently bloody and uncompromising — more potent as a result.
Visually, the director’s approach is gritty and stylish without turning pretentious. The film includes a slow-motion sequence involving a bullet to the head in which the beauty provides a stark contrast to the brutality.
Pitt leads a top-notch cast that includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Sam Shepard in critical supporting roles. Don’t go looking for any estrogen in this ensemble, however, since the only female character is a prostitute.
Of course, the fact that none of these characters is truly sympathetic provides an obstacle. Perhaps as an act of compromise, the filmmakers add in plenty of references to the current economic struggles in the United States — through radio and televisions in the background, or excerpts from political speeches by presidents Bush and Obama — essentially justifying the behavior of the characters as an act of desperation in response.
The pace is deliberate, yet that simmering sociopolitical undercurrent gives Killing Them Softly more weight than its rather conventional concept might suggest, and it also brings contemporary resonance to a tale that, on the surface, might seem more at home in the past than present.
Rated R, 97 minutes.