In Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt plays the grim undertaker of America’s hopes and dreams. Walking smoothly through his tasks as a hit man for the mob, the actor is often accompanied by audio snippets of the political fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Speeches by George W. Bush, Hank Paulson, and Barack Obama serve as the background drone to his spectacular violence, suggesting an uneasy connection between the plot’s mob robbery gone wrong and an economy circling the drain. On the eve of the 2008 election, Pitt’s character refers to candidate Obama on TV: “This guy wants to tell me that we’re living in a community,” he says. “I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business.”
At its outset, the story is all about economic Darwinism: Two young hoodlums—brooding, ambitious Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and sweaty Australian dog-thief Russell (Ben Mendelsohn)—join in on a small-time operator’s plan to hold up a mob-protected card game. In an impressively tense scene, they do so, but the fallout turns out to be a bit more than anybody anticipated. The guy sent by the mob to clean things up turns out to be Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a man who claims compassion for his victims (he prefers to “kill them softly,” without a lot of fuss and mess) but also has an uncanny habit of leaving gruesome corpses in his path.
It’s gratifying to see Pitt back in his coiled, tough-guy mode. After all, it’s what he built his fame on, in films like Kalifornia, Snatch, and Fight Club. And despite the rightful acclaim he’s received for turns in more serious fare such as The Tree of Life and Moneyball, the dangerous hunk still fits him like a comfortable pair of assassin’s leather gloves. His menacing performance, initially, makes you momentarily forget the part-time furniture designer and purveyor of fine architecture, and especially the man with the flowing blond mane featured in the utterly incomprehensible—and much-parodied—ads for Chanel No. 5.
But halfway through, the movie slips out from under him. Several characters and plot lines appear to converge, fellow hit man Mickey (James Gandolfini) shows up, and then … nothing really happens. Killing Them Softly is a lot of setup followed almost immediately by a third act, with very little in between. It’s full of powerful scenes—one murder is a slow-motion symphony of shattering glass and exploding brains—but they don’t add up to anything. Dominik strives to scale the puny incidentals of the plot—adapted from George V. Higgins’s un-political 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade—into a grand metaphor for the nation’s downfall. But the critique itself isn’t really founded on anything except a vague sense of uncertainty.
“I face the choice to step in with government action,” intones George W. Bush in the background as Cogan first meets with the lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who represents the mob forces who hired him. But what does this juxtaposition actually mean? The economic undercurrent suggests an uncomfortable feeling that the system is rigged—that the house always wins. But “every man for himself” and “the system is rigged” are hardly compatible philosophies. In the end, Killing Them Softly’s fashionable cynicism is just as nonsensical as a perfume commercial.