Mystery is star quality for Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), the Mob hit man in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. Cogan is both inside the syndicate and above it. “Very few guys know me,” he says; angels of death do not socialize. He dispatches his victims with efficiency, because that’s his job and his style. Sometimes, though, he doesn’t much care for the particulars. In their final moments before the fatal gunshot, he says, guys tend to “get touchy-feely. Emotional, not fun, lot of fuss. They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they call for their mothers. It’s embarrassing. I like to kill them softly, from a distance, not close enough for feelings. Don’t like feelings. Don’t want to think about ’em.”
A smart, supercool enforcer of gangland and corporate priorities, Cogan is the criminal-industrial complex’s Terminator, a machine as sleek, functional and unerring as his .44. Sometimes he kills guys; other times he hires a guy to kill a guy. Money, not blood rage, is the defining factor. As Cogan tells one prospective assassin (The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini), “In this economy, 15 [thousand dollars] sounds pretty good for two days’ work.” But Cogan’s not in charge. He takes orders from, and haggles over fees with, the taciturn lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who represents various Messrs. Big. He’s the underworld equivalent of a midlevel Wall Street sharpie, doing the dirty work for master manipulators.
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Set in South Boston but shot in Louisiana — perhaps so Pitt, a New Orleans resident, could go home for dinner — this adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade reunites the star with the Australian director who boosted Pitt’s indie cred with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a critically praised renegade western that never found its audience. The new movie has Dominik playing it safer in a crime film, a subdued variation on the Tarantino template.
When a high-stakes card game under Mob protection gets raided by two outsiders, Cogan is charged with finding and extinguishing the perps. Suspicion falls on the card game’s manager, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who is thought to have fleeced his own game once before. But the scam’s real mastermind — a term to be used loosely in a movie where virtually everyone but Cogan is a depressive alcoholic, a brain-addled junkie or an idiot — is one John “the Squirrel” Amato (another Sopranos veteran, Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny Sack; nice to see him alive again, for a while). Calculating that Markie will be fingered for a second heist, the Squirrel engages the services of two ex-cons, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, from Animal Kingdom). Many will be killed, most not softly.
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The movie is sharpest in defining, with relish and ketchup, the impact and etiquette of criminal brutality. Cogan finds one of his marks at a stoplight: a super-slo-mo of the cocked gun, the sailing bullet, the crimson geyser from the back of the victim’s head. When another man is shot, the top of his skull comes off like a cheap toupee. Markie’s mauling at the fists of two thugs hired by Cogan is a bloody marvel of sadism and exaggerated sound effects. But wait, did we say etiquette? Sure. Toward the end of his beating, Markie breaks a cardinal rule: You don’t cough up blood chunks on your assailant’s shoes. That gets him extra kicks in the face.
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In this all-male milieu — except for a call girl who gets a few lines, no woman speaks — and with Higgins’ salty, purposeful dialogue largely reduced to “freakin’ this” and “fuggin’ that,” reputation is more important than reality. “It’s not what you been doin’,” Cogan tells Frankie. “It’s what guys think you been doin’.” What most of them (aside from Cogan) are doing is talking about old crimes.
In one terrific vignette that vies with Seven Psychopaths for the year’s best dognapping caper, Russell recalls that he used to steal expensive pooches and take them to Florida for resale. His accomplice Kenny (the single-named actor Slaine) needs to dispose of their hot car, so he puts a lighted rag in a gas tank. No worries, done it a million times. The car explodes, zooms backward and runs over Kenny — all in one shot. It’s a sight gag whose violence and elegance are worthy of a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon. For a guy to commit a crime with a showman’s aplomb, then get totaled by his own incompetence: that’s a sour vision of America worth cherishing.
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Despite the colorfully rancid exertions of the supporting players, and enough dirty punches to flatten Rocky Balboa in all six movies, the main reward for your attention is Pitt in another effortless star performance. Following his triumphs in 2011’s The Tree of Life and Moneyball, he shows again how to elevate a film with skill, charisma and no sweat. In this rancid milieu, he comes out smelling like Chanel No. 5.