Killing Them Softly is so heavy-handed, it features the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" during a scene in which a character shoots up heroin. But it's so cool that the instrumental section plays — you have to know the song to get it.
Andrew Dominik's movie consistently vacillates like this, between obviousness and subtlety, treating viewers to bare-knuckle carnage and long stretches of character-shading dialogue. It cares about its characters, who care about nothing but themselves, and it caters to its audience by working so hard to be middlebrow. For a movie that features an extended sequence of Ray Liotta being pummeled by fists and then vomiting and then being mocked, a movie itself that pummels you with news footage from the 2008 stock market crash (broadcasts of Bush and Obama talking are Softly's principal score), it is weirdly benevolent, a thrilling and ponderous nasty little gem of a movie.
It all goes down so easy, as Brad Pitt's hitman character Jackie Cogan attempts to rectify a situation, in which two amateurs, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) robbed a local New Orleans poker game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta). There are several complications. Markie previously had his own game robbed to hoard to profits, but then revealed this to people — he went from being unsuspected (Q: who would rob their own game?) to the main suspect (A: someone who did it before). These games prop up the local economy so that everyone involved is more or less invested in them thriving. From a national economy in tatters forms a shaky local gambling economy and when that is disrupted, an even more unstable economy of crime and murder pushes through the asphalt. Jackie's hired to off Frankie and Rusell, but that requires more hiring on his part, and so on. The tangled web first spun by George V. Higgins in Cogan's Trade, the 1974 novel on which Softly is based, is stretched out elegantly over Softly's 90 minutes.
But callousness is everywhere in this dog-shoot-dog-thus-igniting-a-gorgeous-slow-mo-sequence-in-which-broken-glass-movies-like-liquid world. Men regard each other with contempt; women don't even get that level of respect. We don't hear a woman talk until about an hour into the movie, and she's a hooker who acts like her "anus is a national treasure," according to the deficient assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini). She flips him off and leaves. The male characters have unfailingly fucked up attitudes about women – early on Russell tells a lament about an encounter that ended with his partner telling him that she was going to kill herself. "They all say that. That's the first thing they think of to say. Don't mean anything," responds Frankie. At one point, Mickey tells Jackie, "I was drinking before you got out of your father's cock." That way of telegraphing just how far back he's talking about is an example of the grim cleverness of Dominik's screenplay and an illustration of how little women are regarded by his characters: birth is attributed to the father.
In the universe of Softly, women are something to fuck or be fucked by. When a character's eye leaves his potential money and turns to booze and fucking, he becomes "worthless," according to Pitt's Jackie. Self-actualization in this movie comes as a result of utter selfishness. Jackie has the most soulfulness – as a hitman, it is his job to consider others, and he goes above and beyond, squeezing out pity until his face winces. Invoking the title, he talks about killing his pray "softly," but what he's not being hard on is himself – he attacks from a distance so that he doesn't have to deal with his targets' emotions. Consideration of others behooves him — it allows him to thrive.
Misogyny is everywhere but it is not advocated — we see nothing that is aspirational. The money that people fight for to the death is in negligible amounts that couldn't alter broken lives, just tape them up temporarily. Killing Them Softly is a kind of worst-case, back-against-the-wall scenario. Characters regularly bemoan the state of civilization – life is meaningless, it's bullshit, we're on our own, equality is a fake construct we are spoon-fed. The world has gone to shit and we are all going to hell - but at least we're going out with high octane.