Brad Pitt’s new film, Killing Them Softly, is, in many ways, a throwback to a kind of film that seemed to get made all the time in the 1970s and was regularly reinvented in the 1990s: a crime story in search of a moral center, and the kind of parabolic tale that is filled with skeezy characters and suspect schemes but simmers with the very modernist sense that something larger (and probably bad) is at work. Directed by Andrew Dominik and adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film nominally tells the story of a low-level criminal ecosystem that is suddenly disrupted when a couple of petty hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are recruited to knock over a card game, setting off a chain of events that brings local commerce, as it were, to a halt. To fix the situation, a consortium of unseen overbosses dispatches Pitt’s character, an enforcer-for-hire named Jackie Cogan, to take the appropriate corrective measures so that business as usual can resume and everyone can start making money again.
While much of the action in Killing Them Softly plays out in back alleys and dive bars, the film itself has an allegorical quality, set in 2008 as the country struggled to come to grips with the initial onset of the current financial crisis (from which America, of course, still has yet to recover) and prepared to elect Barack Obama to the presidency on the back of a campaign of hope (which would very quickly transform into anxiety and impatience). That framing, though, never fully draws focus from the narrative, in large part because the film is filled with actors who, when thrust into any sort of quasi-mob-related scenario, bring veritable mountains of baggage to the proceedings–among them, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack on The Sopranos), as well as others with definitive presence, like Sam Shepard (in a quiet but pivotal role) and Richard Jenkins (who, hilariously, plays the smarmy middleman who communicates with Pitt’s character on behalf of the crime syndicate and tries to keep the whole operation on budget by lowballing him at every turn).
Killing Them Softly, which Pitt also produced through his Plan B shingle, marks his second collaboration with Dominik. (The pair last worked together on the highly underrated 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a carefully drawn western that’s a meditation on both westerns and on celebrity.) It also represents the latest in a string of films—unofficially beginning with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and continuing through Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and last year’s The Tree of Life and Moneyball—in which Pitt has quietly but assuredly transformed himself as an actor. Of course, Pitt’s life offscreen with his partner (and now fiancée) Angelina Jolie and their six children continues to get a lot of attention. But on screen, late-era Brad Pitt has been nothing short of a revelation, cracking himself open freely and readily in film after film. At times, that has translated into a very real kind of vulnerability (see Babel, Jesse James, Tree of Life). At others, it has meant stirring up a certain conviction or resolve (see all of the above plus Inglourious Basterds and Moneyball). But more often than not, it has involved exploring the idea of character, in both the dramatic and the human-emotional senses, as something more tapped into or developed than taken on or assumed.
Guy Ritchie, who directed Pitt in Snatch (2000), recently met up with the 48-year-old actor in London, where Pitt was finishing work on another film, World War Z.