With Killing Them Softly and 12 Years a Slave, Brad Pitt is establishing an unfortunate habit of being the super-obvious mouthpiece of the films in which he stars and produces. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, otherwise keeps mum about its thematic ambitions, preferring to show rather than tell. But Andrew Dominik, helmer and screenwriter of Killing Them Softly, has no intentions towards subtlety. He adapts George V. Higgins's novel, Cogan's Trade, into a screed about the perils of capitalism, set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election and shooting in bombed-out sections of New Orleans, presumably standing in for Boston, maybe. And we have Pitt front and center, ever ready to deliver the film's most incisive lines about how the game is rigged, man, and we're all on our own. Good thing he looks cool as hell while doing it.
Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are two bottom-feeder criminals who are enlisted by Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola, a.k.a. Johnny Sack on The Sopranos) to knock over a Mob-run poker game, hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The catch is that Markie has been known to sponsor the robbing of his game in the past, so the guys on the street will assume he's at it again, and the Squirrel and his goons will get away, scot-free. Enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to punish Markie—mostly for show—but he is too familiar to the Squirrel to do him, too, so Jackie brings down Mickey (James Gandolfini) to do that job. The problem is that Mickey has way too many personal issues to get it done, preferring to whine about his crumbling marriage and drown his sorrows in a near-constant waterfall of booze. It's as if Gandolfini's needy, manic-depressive Carol from Where the Wild Things Are jumped into Tony Soprano's body.
There are a lot of characters and moving parts to Killing Them Softly, but it's all just for show: this movie is squarely about crime and punishment, and the twisted logic of honor among thieves. Things progress the way you'd expect them to, more or less, so there are no surprises on the plot front. You get the sense that Dominik is trying to Make a Point due to the fact that political talk radio or CNN are playing in the background in almost every scene. When we watch Markie's game get cleaned out, then-President George W. Bush is on the TV, talking about the desperate financial situation of the country. Barack Obama and John McCain are heard sparring about how they are better suited to restoring the economy. It doesn't take long for it to sink in that the powers that be are all crooks, just like Jackie and the other gun-toting wise guys. Dominik's approach is just as scattershot as Jackie's preference to kill his victims "softly" from a distance using a shotgun, in order to spare the mutual participants the "messy feelings" that are involved.
If that doesn't hit home hard enough, we're finally party to Jackie as he waxes poetic about how America is a free-for-all and there is no such thing is unity. He actually says this while scoffing at Obama as he makes his acceptance speech on election night. There is nothing soft about Dominik's approach and producer Pitt seems to agree with it, what with his aforementioned presence in 12 Years a Slave, in which he dispenses conversely optimistic platitudes about the brotherhood of man to Solomon Northup. It's the sort of left-wing hand-wringing that Hollywood loves to espouse, even as it comes to you in the form of the most capitalistic of entertainments, one in which we receive product placement for Budweiser. No, Mr. Pitt, you're still not above it if your character doesn't give a damn about whether he has a bottle or draft.
All of this hullabaloo aside, Dominik is nevertheless a talented writer-director. His tough-guy talk pops and crackles—and there's a lot of it—especially when coming from the mouth's of the best tough guys still working today. Gandolfini is great as ever in walking a fine line between a hardened criminal and a regular guy with a lot on his mind. Dominik is also sparing with the violence, shooting much of it in super-slow motion so we can feel its impact. The film doesn't have a high body count, but the characters who do go down feel so lived in and familiar that we can't help but register their deaths, which inevitably feel dirty and completely avoidable, if not accidental. Killing Them Softly is an angry, contentious movie with an agenda; its craftsmanship makes it worth watching, even if you have to stop your eyes from rolling to see it.