There is nothing soft about Killing Them Softly. Writer/director Andrew Dominik's film is violent and brutal.
A high-stakes, mob-protected poker game is robbed. Three not-so-bright guys plan and carry off the heist. They figure they can get away with it because the mobster hosting the game robbed his own game a few years before. That fact will not be lost on the victims. They'll blame their host, kill him for the robbery and the three guys are set.
It doesn't quite work out that way.
The robbery causes a mob financial crisis. Cash-strapped mobsters are never happy. Wanting revenge, the never seen mob leaders send clean-up man Jackie Cogan in to find the perpetrators, kill them and fix the problem. It's Cogan's journey, his relationship with the other characters and how things get "fixed" that make Killing Them Softly a very good and also unusual movie.
Brad Pitt is Cogan and is the plot's perfect anchor. He is always superb and plays Cogan as a bit of an odd-ball with a sick, twisted sense of humor. James Gandolfini has a blast doing a contract killer with drinking and legal problems brought in to help take care of the robbers. His former The Soporanos co-star Vincent Curatola plays the guy who got the idea for the robbery.
Properly greasy with bad teeth and hair, and great dialects, mostly unknown actors Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are the thugs who carry out the robbery. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is always low-key. He plays Cogan's mob boss contact. Ray Liotta nails the card game's organizer and the guy who pulled off the first robbery.
The exceptional acting brings Dominik's film -- based on George Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade -- to life. Acting is important, but it is Dominik's (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) script and storytelling that give the film its intensity. Even scenes where nothing is happening have a nail-chewing ferocity to them.
And ferocity is the right word. At the bottom of every scene is this harsh, edge-of-your-seat, adrenaline inducing tension.
Dominik also takes an unusual angle with the theme. The robbery sets up a mob cash crisis. His script puts the film's time period as 2008. It's the beginning of the financial crisis that led to bank bailouts and the Great Recession.
As his characters move through the story, Dominik splices audio and video clips of President Bush, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, congressional leaders and others talking about what must be done to save the nation from financial ruin.
A cash crisis for mobsters that society identifies as criminals and a cash crisis for criminals legitimized by society. The juxtaposition is brilliant.
Like all stories, Killing Them Softly has a beginning, a middle and an end. But they don't really matter. Dominik's focus is the journey. It's how you get from the beginning to the middle to the end that makes this gritty drama one of the year's best.
With this one, think early Quentin Tarantino in plot and dialogue structure and you get the picture. Gruesome. Yes. But oh, so well done.
Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars
Director: Andrew Dominik
Stars: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins
Rated R for graphic violence, language, mature themes. It's playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.