McNairy and Mendelsohn are a couple of low-life hoodlums who raid a mob-run poker game headed by Liotta. Pitt plays the hard-ass hitman brought in to teach them a lesson. And that, in a nutshell, is the plot of Killing Them Softly.
It's reminiscent of the great American crime dramas of the 70s and 80s – think The Godfather, and Casino, and Goodfellas, and Scarface (Al Pacino would not be out of place here). Pitt and director Dominik last worked together on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Dominik also made the great Aussie crime pic Chopper. Killing Them Softly is based on the 1974 novel Cogan's Trade, but the story has been moved to 2008 – the year of the last residential election that saw Barack Obama elected to the White House. This is not the glamourous world of crime that Tarantino showed us in Pulp Fiction. It's a time of political and economic turmoil in America, and this is a world of sleaze, of grime, of street thugs trying to scrape a living any way they can.
Frankie and Russell (McNairy and Mendelsohn) are down on their luck and contracted to knock over a poker game run by Markie (Liotta), who has robbed his own game before. Johnny Amato (Curatola) tells them that Markie will be blamed for the robbery, but things go sour and killer for hire Cogan (Pitt) is brought in by Jenkins' anonymous go-between to clean up the mess. Cogan likes to kill from a distance – "killing them softly", he calls it – so he subcontracts one of the hits to old pal Mickey (Gandolfini), an old-school mobster wwith an addiction to liquor and prostitutes.
Killing Them Softly is full of wonderful scenes, smart dialogue and great performances – McNairy and Mendelsohn particularly excel – but it's very much Pitt's film. Pitt has always been a good actor, but it's taken him quite a few years to lose the "pretty boy" tag and really show the world what he can do. His previous few roles have been outstanding – Jess James and Moneyball being the best of them. Here Pitt is calm, quiet, assured, watchable and totally believable as the professional, efficient gentleman killer. Could we see another Oscar nomination in Pitt's near future?
It's cynical, bleak and brilliant – do not miss Killing Them Softly, which is sure to earn its place in the pantheon of great gangster films.
EXTRAS ★★ Interviews with cast members Mendelsohn, Casella, Liotta, Jenkins, McNairy and Long, and writer-director Dominik; and a collection of trailers.