Andrew Dominik's character-driven, art-house gangster drama "Killing Them Softly" clocks in at a relatively brief 97 minutes, yet still feels as if its opening and closing scenes were accidentally lopped off.
What remains is a minutely detailed, talky, cynical tale of a reluctant hit man who sums up the movie's belabored moral with comments as subtle as a shotgun blast to the face.
"Killing Them Softly"★ ★ ★
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Sam Shepard
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations and violence. 97 minutes
"America is not a country!" Jackie Cogan shouts. "It's a business. Now pay me!"
Brad Pitt plays Cogan as a world-weary, aloof professional, a veteran mob assassin who takes no joy in offing people who've run afoul of his employers.
But hey, it's a job. And he's lucky to have one, you know?
It's 2008 in Louisiana just after the USA's financial meltdown and just before the presidential election (a contrast to George V. Higgins' Boston-set 1974 book "Cogan's Trade," the basis for this movie).
As TVs and radios constantly spout bites from artificially hopeful speeches by President George Bush and presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, Cogan goes about his latest assignment, mopping up a little mess involving a mob card game and two incompetent crooks.
Local dry-cleaning king Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) thinks he can pull off robbing a mob poker game operated by sleazy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, employing a winning combination of charm and naughtiness).
Amato recruits a Southern version of Ratso Rizzo in the weasel-like Frankie (Scoot McNairy) who instantly enlists the aid of his loser pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to stick up the high-stakes card game.
(Curiously, the players don't lock doors, post guards or keep guns handy for sudden intrusions, even though Markie secretly masterminded robbing his game two years earlier and got away with it.)
"You know they're going to kill you?" Markie says to the masked gunmen, but they really are too stupid to understand what they've done.
The robbery virtually cripples the underworld's financial stability, prompting a mob lackey and attorney called Driver (DeKalb's own Richard Jenkins) to hire Cogan to clean things up.
America has become so corporatized that even organized crime has been taken over by boards of directors populated with nervous nellies nattering over controlling costs.
"Killing Them Softly" doesn't glorify these gangsters, it studies them, just as Dominik's earlier western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" studied the personalities involved in one of the most popular killings in outlaw mythology.
In a scene with Driver, Cogan gets to explain his modus operandi and the meaning of the movie's title: "I like to kill them softly," Cogan explains, "from a distance." Otherwise, you get too close and things get too touchy-feely.
Forget about obligatory romantic subplots for the female demographic. "Killing Them Softly" has none as it goes about its grim, yet slyly humorous demystification of the American mob drama.
"Sopranos" star James Gandolfini provides a startling human portrait of Mickey, Cogan's fellow hit man who no longer has passion for his work, but goes through the bitter motions as if he were a middle-management burnout filling his personal voids with hookers, drugs and alcohol.
Playwright/actor Sam Shepard supplies a comically brief cameo as a legendary mob hit man named Dillon. (So brief, he has a line of dialogue.)
When "Killing Them Softly" does get around to violence, it earns its R rating with shocking, graphic, up-close beatings, shootings, car wrecks and torture, punctuated by unnerving pleas for mercy by their receivers (often captured in ill-conceived slow-motion shots that diminish visual impact).
"I'm living in America!" Cogan says. "And in America, you're on your own."
Didn't he steal that from an Obama speech?