Andrew Dominik’s first film with Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was an unusually reflective movie about outlaws, a languorous and beautiful western by way of Terrence Malick. (Pitt would go on to star in the actual Malick film The Tree of Life, as if having graduated from an intro course in acting in between shots of grass rustling in the wind. He must have paid attention; his Jesse James and Life performance represent career-best work.) It comes as a mild shock, then, that pair’s second feature together, Killing Them Softly, runs a trim 98 minutes.
Not that it begs for more room to stretch out: This is a movie about a couple of low-level criminal doofuses (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who are hired to rob a mobbed-up card game by Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), who knows the crime will be blamed on Markie (Ray Liotta), and how the mobbed-up lawyer (Richard Jenkins) hires enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to find those responsible and take care of them. This story could probably be told in 30 or 40 minutes, but Dominik, adapting the George V. Higgins crime novel Cogan’s Trade, covers all the ins and outs of a seemingly straightforward transaction. Those ins and outs include a lot of conversation.
Indeed, though there are a few action scenes — the central robbery vibrates with muffled, unsettling tension — much of the movie consists of talk: between the scraggly McNairy and scragglier Mendelsohn (sporting a permanent sheen of junkie sweat) on the way to the job, between Jenkins and Pitt at various check-ins, between Pitt and James Gandolfini, playing an out-of-town hit man who Pitt hires for extra help, but winds up spending most of his time drinking heavily and getting into tiffs with local hookers (the movie takes place somewhere in Massachusetts, though it was shot in anonymous-looking outskirts of New Orleans). The dialogue, presumably derived from the Higgins book, is often hilarious, occasionally sad, sometimes both, as in scenes where Gandolfini starts rambling about his near-broken marriage while Pitt looks on impatiently.
Dominik usually shoots the two-man dialogue scenes static, alternating one-shots; when the time for action rolls around, he shows off a little more. He composes a late scene with Pitt and a partner staking out a victim in a car largely in angles out of the vehicle’s windows and half-blurred reflections in rearview mirrors — urban claustrophobia. It’s not quite as striking as the Roger Deakins-shot Jesse James, but it does have a certain poetry to it.
All of this takes place during the 2008 financial meltdown and run-up to that year’s presidential election. We know this because car radios, bar TVs, and pretty much delivery medium that could be conceivably tuned to political coverage offer a running commentary on all the low-life action. “How did we reach this point in our economy?” George W. Bush asks in the background as characters scrounge together a pointless heist. Two different kinds of ruinous capitalism, the movie seems to say: maybe not so different when you think about it. Or when you barely think about it: the ironic parallels are frequent and obvious.
Yet to complain that this film is unsubtle misses the point. Subtlety is not, in and of itself, a positive or negative quality. What matters is what the filmmakers do with their subtlety or, in this case, their lack thereof. And early on, it does feel a little dicey, all of the election business butting into some masterful filmmaking, threatening to overwhelm the pared-down skill of its small-scale face-offs and screw-ups. But Dominik pulls it out in the end. In his final scene, he merges that pungent hard-ass dialogue with his attempt at social commentary via a stingingly cynical monologue from Pitt, closing on a line that makes the movie’s themes even more explicit, direct, and hilarious, punctuated with a perfect cut to black. It’s a slammer of an ending, and it’s not subtle – but a punch in the gut rarely is.