Describing Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly doesn’t do it justice.  It’s a bleak, cynical slice of criminal misbehavior: two thugs (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelssohn) knock off a mob-run gambling den, and the Syndicate sends in a no-B.S. hitman (Brad Pitt) to investigate the robbery and tie-off any loose ends.  Bullets are fired, blood is spilled, and Pitt restores illegality to its natural order.

On the surface, there really isn’t any more to the film, though that slightness wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – Dominik adapted the film from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade, and anyone familiar with Higgins knows he’s one of modern noir fiction’s High Priests.  Most of Higgins’ books are short, but what they lack in length and originality, they make up in raw cynicism and Higgins’ scary-hilarious dialogue.  Higgins also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the movie version of it remains one of the great no-frills crime pictures; would that Killing Them Softly be so “simple.”

Anyone familiar with Dominik’s flawed-but-beautiful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford already has a leg-up on his genre intentions.  That earlier film simultaneously elongated and deflated the Western mythos; Dominik’s nominal subject might have been Jesse James’ last days, but the whole picture is really an exposé of celebrity: how you find it, how you keep it, and the psychic toll it takes.  It’s as much a Western as Richard Lester’s Petulia is a romantic comedy.

So it goes with Killing Them Softly.  Dominik might have criminals and violence in the foreground, but his real subject simmers away in every scene, just out of frame.  He’s found a unique 1:1 proxy – only in mob movies does the world function the exact same as it does in our capitalist system: the emphasis on fortune over compassion, on production over personal relationships, on financial success as the Absolute, Darwinian Good.  Dominik sets his film during the final days of the 2008 Presidential election, just as our financial network was cratering, and in doing so, he offers a street-level look at the disconnect between the candidates’ campaign promises and a total system breakdown.  Barack Obama and John McCain might have been preaching Yes We Can and Country First, but everywhere else the sharks were eating their young.

Killing Them Softly makes that bloodbath literal.  As the nameless mob enforcer, Pitt gives one of his most confident performances, and his power comes from an utter lack of empathy.  He doesn’t care about circumstance or the truth; his allegiance is toward a broken economy, and he’ll kill anybody who proves the system doesn’t work.  The great irony of the film is that his vengeance is predicated on a massive error: everybody thinks McNairy and Mendelssohn’s hotheads acted on behalf of mid-level flunky Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, who hasn’t been this good in a long time).  Pitt actually susses out Trattman’s innocence almost immediately, but he knows that if Trattman lives, those doing business with the mob will lose confidence in its operations.

And that’s the funny-sick joke at the center of Killing Them Softly.  Every body Pitt drops acts as its own kind of corporate bailout, a scorched-earth plan to keep the system going, whether that means killing people who don’t deserve to die or negotiating payoffs to a mobbed-up dinosaur (James Gandolfini, eking Falstaffian misery from his handful of scenes) who doesn’t deserve the riches and influence afforded his way.  It’s bad, sure, but no worse than what happened on Wall Street.

Dominik does not underplay this subtext – every scene has either a TV or a radio blaring political double-talk as an ironic counterpoint to the bloody happenings, and I’m sure it’s no accident that he relocated Higgins’ Boston-set tale to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans – but most of the time, he manages to keep Killing Them Softly from spilling into heavy-handed diatribe.  Part of that is due to Dominik’s innate gifts as a filmmaker.  Killing Them Softly runs a whole hour shorter than The Assassination of Jesse James, but it certainly doesn’t lack for iconic setpieces.  McNairy and Mendelssohn’s robbery is a small masterpiece of suspense; Dominik stages it as if violence could erupt at any second, and when it does, as in the extended double homicide that concludes the film, Dominik makes the spaces in between the carnage as menacing as actual physical aggression.  Most American movies treat murder like some kind of release, but for Dominik, killing is sad and messy and fast, and nowhere near as devastating as the anticipation.

This reads grim, and it is.  It is also frequently hilarious, in a coal-black way.  McNairy and Mendelssohn make a great team, with McNairy’s charming sleaziness looking positively debonair next to Mendelssohn’s sweaty, profanely chatty burnout.  And as menacing as he is, Pitt also gets ample opportunities to play the part of the comic straight man; for much of his screen-time, he’s haggling with Richard Jenkins’ Syndicate middleman over how to properly finance his operation, and the matter-of-fact irritation that the two men evince when discussing the most cost-effective way to, say, kill a man is practically Swiftian.

To be fair, Dominik’s outré touches sometimes clash with the blunt-force impact of the source material.  His low-life protagonists are way more politically conscious than most denizens of the criminal underground are.  I doubt that a group of degenerate, gambling hoods would have CNN on during a poker game, or that two gunsels on their way to mete out a beatdown would be listening to Ben Bernanke on NPR.  Furthermore, Dominik’s cinematic virtuosity can be a little distracting at times; he stages Pitt’s assassination of a key character in ultra-resolution slow-motion, and the moment is so visually stunning – the bloodshed flows with hallucinatory languor – that it actually undercuts the air of brutal tedium that Dominik has spent so much time cultivating.

Yet in a weird way, I think I responded to these quirks even when they weren’t successful.  Crime thrillers are a dime a dozen, and by abstracting and obfuscating conventional genre tropes, Dominik is able to leave a vivid imprint on the material – I’d liken it to John Coltrane’s expressionistic, improvisatory take on “My Favorite Things.”  Plus, if Dominik played it safe, we wouldn’t have scenes like the exposition dump filtered through one character going in and out of a heroin high, or the brilliant, jaw-dropping finale, which finds Pitt riffing on Barack Obama’s victory speech to devastating effect.  Criminal or otherwise, this is a tough, uncompromising world, and Dominik slams that insight home with as cynical a use of profanity as I’ve ever heard and one perfectly timed cut-to-black.

The end knocks the wind out of you.  So does the rest of the movie.

Anchor Bay and the Weinstein Company’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks wonderful.  DP Greig Fraser shot the film on gritty anamorphic stock, and the Blu-ray preserves his wonderful stylistic touches.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also quite effective – clean during the quiet scenes and frighteningly immersive for the moments of violence.

Features are scant.  We get a few nice-but-inessential deleted scenes and a five-minute, EPK-style making-of featurette.  I wish there was more, but considering Killing Them Softly‘s disappointing box-office take, I’m just glad the movie looks and sounds so good.

I think Killing Them Softly is 2012’s most underrated movie.  It’s weird and atypically political and bracingly cynical, but it’s also alive in ways that few movies are.

Killing Them Softly hits Blu-ray on March 26th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: The Genius of Andrew Dominik’s Weird, Wonderful KILLING THEM SOFTLY