In the long, proud lineage of American gangster movies, there are few with as short a plot arc as "Killing Them Softly." Three fellas decide to knock over a card game. The men who oversee that game decide there should be consequences. Then: consequences. It goes further than that, but not by much, across 97 minutes. With a strong but limited storyline, the true marrow of the film falls to its characters, dialogue and texture, all of which ring powerful. Intellectually "Killing Them Softly" is a fine film — but it also pumps so much liquid nitrogen through its veins you might leave with mild hypothermia. It is hard and it is harsh, a cinematic battlefield surgery.
The three guys who start this chain of unfortunate events get off to a rough start. Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack from "The Sopranos") owns a dry cleaner and has a foolproof plan to rob a high-stakes card game run by a guy named Markie, played by Ray Liotta. Markie is known to have orchestrated the armed robbery of his own game once before, so another such event would make him the prime suspect. After some consternation, a callow young ex-con named Frankie (Scoot McNairy, affectingly) and a strung-out Aussie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) that the dry cleaner can't stand wind up as the bagmen for this gig. The hold-up of the high-stakes backroom game is a masterful scene and the best argument for the taut, deliberate pacing that director Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") establishes and, for the most part, holds throughout.
In the aftermath, two men convene to address the events of that night: Brad Pitt, as Jackie, an apparent lieutenant in whatever criminal organization holds jurisdiction here (someone named "Dillon," forever unseen but menacingly evoked, employs him); and Richard Jenkins ("The Cabin in the Woods") as a character credited only as Driver, an emissary for what he laments are woefully corporatized higher-ups. The middle-managing mobsters summon an aging hitman played by James Gandolfini. This is really something for the erstwhile Tony Soprano: As a degenerate, whoring, alcoholic murderer, Gandolfini has never been slimier.
But herein, mid-film, "Killing Them Softly" stalls out. Everything seems to be working, then it doesn't. Here's one guess as to why. Dominik, who also adapted a George V. Higgins novel for this screenplay, has set the movie in an unnamed American city (though it's plainly shot in New Orleans) during the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. We know this because news clips routinely leak in via televisions and car radios. The connection isn't especially subtle. While Wall Street's shenanigans are threatening to topple the entire world economy, and George W. Bush is decrying the death of "confidence" that capitalism requires, we have these gangsters handling the Mafioso versions of the same predicaments. What needs to happen when a crime is committed? Who has to pay? It takes a couple of explanations for Driver to grasp what Jackie's getting at when he explains the intricacies of who, precisely, needs to die. Then it hits him: Ah, the public angle. Everyone needs to believe these business ventures are on the up-and-up for the crooks in charge to stay in business.
Dominik isn't reaching terribly for the metaphor. Perhaps he just lets it trip him a bit. Pitt here is something like a corporate angel of death, killing as business, killing for business. By placing him at the center of the action and at the center of the allegory, Dominik courts a certain nihilistic flair. It's risky, and it falters. You simply cannot put a man with no heart at the heart of your movie and expect it to resonate. Dominik does get his point across. But, oh, is it ever cold going down.