This grippingly toxic and cynical movie is a lowlife crime drama, and something more – a boot in the crotch of American capitalism. It is adapted from George V Higgins' 1974 Boston mob novel Cogan's Trade, but updated to 2008, the year Bush lost the Presidency to Obama and the wheels began falling off the economy. The film's background is almost entirely dominated by TV and radio broadcasts of Bush's homely pieties and Obama's incoming optimism, yet the picture of the country it projects is one of slate-coloured skies, desolate carparks and black, black moods. We could be in New York, we could be in New Orleans, it doesn't matter; it's the States, and they look sick.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik plunges us into what seems a pretty standard plot: a bunch of minor crims rip off another bunch, with calamitous consequences. From the moment we see small-timers Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) arguing in the cramped office of schemer Johnny (Vincent Curatola) we fear the worst for all concerned. They are due to knock over the big-money card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who once robbed his own game and got away with it. The thinking goes that Markie will be suspected of pulling the same trick twice, thus diverting suspicion from the actual perpetrators.
Now Frankie and Russell don't look capable of raiding a schoolyard pocket-money ring, and once inside with their sawn-off shotguns it all becomes heart-stoppingly tense as they shout and bully two long tables of hardnut gamblers you'd cross the street to avoid. Amazingly, they get away with it, and the bad news for poor old Markie is that everybody does suspect he's behind it. Up to this point, Killing Them Softly has played like a minor-league movie, one which for all its sharp, edge-of-the-seat dialogue would not get itself an audience beyond crime-thriller aficionados waiting for the next Scorsese or Mamet. Dominik, however, has a high-denomination note tucked up his sleeve, the sort that could get any film noticed. Brad Pitt – for it is he – plays the contract killer Jackie Cogan, called in to sort out the card-game robbery. Pitt, having starred in the title role of Dominik's 2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, here returns the favour with a really fine low-key performance, less mannered than usual and much the better for it.
Pitt's first encounter is with the great Richard Jenkins, playing Driver, a middleman who negotiates between the men upstairs (the Mob) and the men on the ground. It's interesting that the film never introduces a Mr Big; the hierarchical level here doesn't get much above foot soldiers. The conversations between Driver and Cogan turn out to be key, for they articulate precisely what's at stake – namely, money. Cogan argues for rubbing out Markie, on the grounds that street confidence will be maintained if an example is made of him. Driver counters with the problem that his clients are "squeamish" about murder – can't they just give him a beating instead? Then, once a course of action is decided, they start haggling over fees. Cogan wants to bring in his guy to help out, but Driver baulks at the expense. "$15,000, we'll fly him in and out." "Fly him coach," says Driver. It's hard times, even in the contract-killing game.
After a while it becomes impossible to resist the idea that we're actually watching a comedy, albeit one of a sump-black hue. The farcical misjudgements of Frankie and Russell have already tipped us the wink: who, after all, would go into a stick-up wearing not robber-regulation latex gloves but a pair of yellow marigolds? And Russell's later report of a friend's attempt to set a car on fire plays like a throwback to Buster Keaton. Sometimes the laugh simply derives from the defeat of expectation. When Cogan's outsider hitman comes to town, instead of a slick professional we get James Gandolfini as a heavy-drinking, whore-abusing wreck whose game went off the boil years ago. Reminiscing about a prostitute and the cockstand she gave him, he says, "I could have fought five guys with the prong I had on" – a lovely image. Now he can hardly bear to leave his hotel room.
Dominik, who also made the terrific Aussie biopic Chopper, gives even the simplest scenes a stylish tweak. A man shot dead through a car window becomes a slo-mo dance of death with snub-nosed bullets and spraying glass. A junkie's addled conversation keeps conking out mid-sentence, like a tape-recorder low on battery-power. Dominik overeggs the irony at times, playing jaunty old-time music, for instance, while someone's head is being colandered by bullets. Yet even here his choice of tune ("Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries") is pertinent to the theme of economic anxiety: "You work, you save, you worry so/ But you can't take your dough when you go, go, go".
The film's real forte, though, is its musical ear for talk, the lengthy setpieces in which men duel in words with one another, timing each parry and thrust with dry intent. It's heard to best advantage in the late scene between Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt, who decries the legend of Thomas Jefferson and holds to scorn his nation's cherished illusion of togetherness. "America's not a country. It's a business," he says – and what is crime but the most basic expression of that business?