THE last time New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik made an American film, it was a pretty big deal.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward was an elegant, contemplative movie that demystified a notorious anecdote of the Old Wild West while doing it justice as the stuff of mythic poetry.
By contrast, Dominik's Killing Them Softly is no big deal.
It's paltry, nasty stuff, at least as far as the story's concerned.
A bunch of hoods rob another bunch of hoods.
As a result, people get hurt; everybody loses. End of story.
You'd be hard-pressed to find more familiar, grubbily anecdotal material.
Yet it yields a very substantial and stylish film, less a straight thriller than a caustic, dramatically expansive depiction of contemporary America as a nation on skid row.
The story is adapted by Dominik from the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, a US crime writer revered as a master of no-bull dialogue.
Small-time boss Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) hires abject stooges Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob the poker game run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta).
Trattman will be the Mob's first suspect, since he once robbed his own establishment.
The heist, executed in an incredibly tense extended scene, comes off as planned, but no one realises that retribution will follow swiftly, in the form of enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt).
Hired by the Mob's blandly urbane "business liaison" type Driver (Richard Jenkins), Cogan specialises in killing people but prefers "killing them softly - at a distance", so that messy emotions don't get in the way.
That means he likes to subcontract when necessary, but he makes a bad choice in hiring washed-up veteran Mickey (James Gandolfini), who regales Cogan with his marital woes before settling in for a lost weekend of booze and whoring.
This film is bracingly different.
Its narrative logic isn't linear, but a matter of drift and uncertainty, fuelled by much rhythmic talk.
Here's an example of how unorthodox the film is: it's supposedly a Brad Pitt vehicle, yet he doesn't make an appearance for quite some time.
In essence, Killing Them Softly is a brutally squalid shaggy dog story, with a brisk coda that tells us, "America is a business".
But the film's big flaw is that it makes its point too bluntly.
Killing Them Softly isn't pleasant, but it's American crime cinema at its smartest and most unapologetically cynical.
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