Pitt makes a hit as Mob rules once again


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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's 1974 Boston mob novel Cogan's Trade, but updated to 2008, the year George W Bush lost the presidency to Barack Obama and the wheels began falling off the US 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 America it projects is one of slate-coloured skies, desolate car parks and black, black moods. We could be in New York, we could be in New Orleans, it doesn't matter; it's the United States, and they look sick.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik plunges us into what seems a pretty standard plot: a bunch of minor criminals 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 hard-nut 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 Martin Scorsese or David 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.

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.

The film's real forte 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 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?