Well, the good news is that it looks as though writer-director Andrew Dominik is starting to shave off a little time between films. His underseen but stunning sophomore effort, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," came out seven years after his acclaimed 2000 debut "Chopper" (a/k/a the movie that gave us the boring gift of Eric Bana), but it's only taken Dominik five years to release his third and latest film, "Killing Them Softly." The less-good news is that this odd little mob noir is a bit of a misfire, albeit a fascinating one, with several blazing performances in service to a perhaps unnecessarily ambitious script that rather needlessly suggests that organized crime is another form of free enterprise.
What sets the gossamer plot of "Killing Them Softly" into motion is, not surprisingly, greed; the skittish Frankie (Scoot McNairy, "Argo") and the sweaty Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, "Animal Kingdom") are a couple of small-time crooks hired by a low-level gangster to rob a card game hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, looking quite Shatner-esque). They're playing the hunch that Trattman will be the one to take the fall, since he orchestrated the knockover of one of his own card games before. Dominik paces the heist flawlessly; two jittery scumbags pointing guns at a room full of wiseguys, every one of the marks looking as though he's about to go for his own piece. At the end of this wickedly tense scene, I realized that I had been holding my breath.
So in swaggers Brad Pitt, Dominik's Jesse James, as Jackie Cogan, a calm and collected enforcer imported by the mob (blink and you'll miss Sam Shepard as the powerful Dillon) to deal with the multi-faceted problem. Jackie is getting his marching orders through an unnamed lawyer (a perfectly cast Richard Jenkins), just another middle-management type stymied by bosses who won't loosen their purse strings. ("Total corporate mentality," he complains.) And even though Jackie's job has been made much easier by Russell's big, bragging mouth, he needs to bring in a little assistance. Cue James Gandolfini, hitting some "Soprano" notes as Mickey, a miserable, boozing hit man who may or may not be able to pull it together and fulfill his contract.
Shot in a New Orleans still showing the effects of Hurricane Katrina, "Killing Them Softly" appears to be set in Boston, judging from the Southie accents as well as the source material, 1974's "Cogan's Trade," by attorney-turned-crime-novelist George V. Higgins. It's Dominik who updated the story's time period to 2008, juxtaposing the violence and lawlessness against that fall's financial crisis and the waning days of the presidential campaign. (Familiar voices can be heard speechifying in the background of various scenes.) What does it all mean? I'm not too sure; maybe Dominik is trying to make a point about how capitalism thrums through every social strata, and that the love of money really is the root of all evil. But this isn't exactly news.
And the characters, unfortunately, give us very little to hang our hats on, which is kind of crucial on an empathy level but nearly impossible in this unapologetically amoral milieu. But it's absolutely not the fault of the actors — and they are all men, save for one lone hooker — each of whom are outstanding. Dominik shoots them in a series of virtuoso duets, all the better for us to appreciate the action and reaction: McNairy and Mendelsohn trying to keep their greasy heads above water, Pitt and Jenkins haggling over the business of murder, Gandolfini and Pitt dealing with Mickey's martini-fueled self-pity, and especially the low-key confrontation between McNairy and Pitt as the former weighs his extremely limited options.
Dominik gets a little show-offy at times with film speeds and camera effects that seem slightly obvious (and using them during those gusts of operatic violence hints at glorification) but things look wonderfully scuzzy thanks to gifted Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who also shot the very different "Bright Star" and "Let Me In" along with the imminent "Zero Dark Thirty." And then there's Pitt, who, like George Clooney, is having more and more difficulty slipping into a role. Don't get me wrong; he's a talented guy and charismatic as hell, but he can't hide the fact that he gleams like a shiny new penny even when he's trying for tarnish.