Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his sublime meditative Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is a return to the small-time criminal fraternity that he made his name with in his fantastic debut Chopper (2000). Brad Pitt plays professional mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, who gets called in when a mob-run poker game gets robbed. Suspicion immediately falls on the unlucky Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who has form in knocking off his own games, but Cogan knows someone else is responsible and sets about finding them.
With his elderly colleague (Sam Shephard) wasting away, Cogan is living in a world that he is increasingly at odds with. The mob he works for are a bunch of timorous second-guessers, not even appearing in the movie but working through the intermediary of an unnamed driver, played by the ever reliable Richard Jenkins. Likewise, an old acquaintance whom Cogan calls in to assist, Mickey from New York (James Gandolfini), is an ageing drunk and no longer seems up to the job.
Based on an old George V. Higgins novel, the film refuses to run along regular generic lines. The plot is by the by. We know whodunit right from the get-go, as does Cogan. There’s a slippery sense of inevitability as the various men trundle through the film towards their fate. Dominik seems far more interested in creating a real, believable small-scale criminal underworld. Cogan is a professional surrounded by incompetence and naivety, but he also has a code by which he abides and a philosophy as convincing as it is chilling. In fact, it is the expounding of this philosophy against Richard Jenkins’s objections that provides much of the entertainment. Working well with a director he obviously likes, Pitt gives another mature and nuanced performance, allowing much of the first half of the film to go by, listening to others, just an audience to a series of great performances from the ensemble cast, before staking his claim and taking it over. ‘Very few guys know me,’ he tells a guy in a bar, and Pitt manages to exude a cool (and cold) threat without posturing, a murderer with a heart of gold and an opinion about everything, who doesn’t like killing people but will do whatever it takes to get his money.
From a wider perspective, with its run-down litter-strewn streets and boarded-up shop fronts, the film places us in a world of creeping failure, a country in irredeemable decline, a country where even the criminal fraternity lack energy, imagination and balls.
Killing Them Softly is an explicit ‘No you fucking can’t’ to the bland optimism of Obama’s America. ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business,’ Cogan declares. And according to this film, it’s a failing one at that.