THE STORY of Killing Them Softly is timeless: Here are a bunch of guys struggling to get by, fighting back despair, and screwing each other over for money. While it's based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade, Killing Them Softly feels utterly contemporary—largely because writer/director Andrew Dominik, the dude behind Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has picked up Higgins' story and plopped it down a few decades later. Now it plays out in the gray ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans, with a soundtrack of news stories about the 2008 financial crisis leaking from every TV and car radio. Suddenly, that bunch of guys struggling to get by, fighting back despair, and screwing each other over for money is part of a bigger story. If the feel-good Lincoln is about how America likes to think of itself, the brutal, cynical, and hilarious Killing Them Softly is about how America actually is.
Brad Pitt, with long, slicked-back hair and an I-don't-give-a-fuck goatee, plays hitman/problem-solver Jackie Cogan. Smart, tough, and weary, Jackie's the guy to go to when things go to hell, which is exactly what happens when two small-time jackasses (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a backroom card game. Dishwashing gloves on their hands and nylons scrunching their faces, the profoundly inept duo's heist is horrifically intense, even if the fall guy is already in place: Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) is all but guaranteed to take the blame.
But there are bigger interests just out of sight, as hinted by the presence of a fussy businessman (Richard Jenkins) tasked with cleaning up the whole mess. Enter Jackie, and, shortly thereafter, enter Mickey (James Gandolfini)—a mopey, faded-from-glory hitman who's less concerned with his job and more concerned with martinis and hookers.
Viciously violent—and viciously funny, with dialogue that's by turns zipping and deadpan, ridiculous and mournful—Killing Them Softly knows exactly what it wants to say and exactly how it wants to say it. Tricks that would otherwise feel gimmicky—Pitt first appearing onscreen to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," or a panicky thief insisting "it's only money!" while, in the background, George W. Bush discusses an economy that just had a nuclear bomb dropped on it—are handled by Dominik with confidence and deft humor. It's hard to think of another movie this year that'll be more perversely enjoyable than this one. "This country is fucked, I'm tellin' ya," Jackie says at one point. "There's a plague comin'." And in the meantime, here's that bunch of guys, laughing and bleeding.