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Greed isn't good in 'Killing Them Softly'

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

The violence is hard and loud in “Killing Them Softly”: a couple of mugs pummeling a suspected rat in a miserable rain, a round of bullets slo-moing through a victim's head. But it is also doled out with resignation, and even regret. Nobody in Andrew Dominik's bloody, and bloody entertaining, crime film, an adaptation of George V. Higgins' “Cogan's Trade,” wants to inflict bodily harm. It's just what they have to do.

“Killing Them Softly” is set in the direst weeks of the 2008 financial crisis, when Barack Obama and John McCain were vying for the presidency, banks and brokerage houses were collapsing, and panic swirled through the air like newspapers in a rotten wind.

In fact, “Killing Them Softly” begins with a figure walking down a tunnel into a desolate cityscape of blowing debris and booming sound bytes from Obama's inaugural campaign (the sound editing in this film is amazing). The guy is Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a jumpy ex-con heading to meet an even jumpier junkie, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), an Aussie with a dog-napping scheme (yup, it's a trend - see “Seven Psychopaths”). There's a prospective job, the brainstorm of Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), aka The Squirrel, to rob a Mob-protected card game, and these are the guys to pull it off.

It's pulpy stuff. The game's host, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), is sure to be fingered for the heist - he'd jacked his own game once before, and then bragged about it. And so Frankie and Russell pull on their stocking masks and rubber gloves, and off we go.

Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a professional killer who talks quietly, scrutinizing his company with a piercing look and a toothpick in his mouth. He meets with a lawyer for the mob (Richard Jenkins), deciding what to do about this business.

Dominik directed Pitt in the loping cowboy tragedy “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and, like that film, this gangland noir is populated with a band of colorfully shifty supporting players. But where his Western aimed for a mythic grace and gravity, Dominik's “Killing Them Softly” is tighter (even as the scenes unfold in long, easy takes), and darkly funny. The filmmaker deftly contrasts Higgins' gritty thriller about crooks, capos and greedheads with what's going on in the world around them: corporate crooks, corporate capos and corporate greedheads triggering a worldwide economic collapse.

It's a neat metaphor, and it works. And it STILL works, four years after the worst of it (hopefully) is over.

Pitt's and Jenkins' scenes take place mostly in a car. The two men are cool and collected, except when they are not, as befits their respective characters, and it's a gas watching them work. Pitt also shares a couple of fascinatingly tense scenes with James Gandolfini, lugging a suitcase through the airport, and lugging his Tony Soprano aura along with him. He's Mickey, a hard-drinking gun for hire who badmouths a hooker while Jackie sits there in the hotel room, getting worried about Mickey's state of mind.

Jolting, suspenseful, full of twisted sympathy for its goons' row of characters, and wickedly amusing to boot, “Killing Them Softly” summons up the ghosts of “Goodfellas” and a whole nasty tradition of crime pics. And then it lets its ghosts go, whacking and thwacking away.

Steven Rea is a movie critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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