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'Killing Them Softly' hits hard

"Sorry, but my client has become pretentious!" That line from a sketch by comic masters Monty Python did, I must admit, enter my head more than once while watching "Killing Them Softly." And yet, as you see, I'm rating it pretty damn highly. Clearly I've got some explaining to do.

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"Killing" is the new film written and directed by Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand-born director who proved himself an apt examiner of American Outlaw myth with his 2007 movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The mythic outlaw under examination here is, or you think would be, the 20th-century organized crime hit man. You would think that because the movie is adapted from a 1974 crime novel by George V. Higgins, an undisputed master of the very low life. However, Dominik has chosen to move the action of the book (titled "Cogan's Trade") into the 21st century, specifically around the 2008 election. So what Higgins wrote as a very straightforward story of a few schmucks who decide to knock over a different schmuck's illegal card game, and of the hired muscle who enters the scene at the behest of a higher mob power to straighten all of the aforementioned schmucks out, in most cases by killing them, now has the opportunity to become something of a parable about life in these United States today.

Honestly? It's a bit of a stretch. My own days of consorting with criminal types are long behind me, but I can't say that I've ever been on any gambling premises, legal or illegal, in which the gaming participants have their venues televisions tuned to C-Span. And yet, as the very sweaty punks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) working for not-quite-mastermind Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) enter a busy after-hours card game in a closed restaurant, who's droning away on the television but George W. Bush. VH1 would be more plausible. Soon, though, the card game's runner, Markie (Ray Liotta) is begging the robbers to do the right thing and leave, because he knows how screwed he is: the reason he's being knocked over is because everyone knows that he was responsible for the last time a card game was robbed, and that the assumption's going to be that he's up to his old tricks again.

This kind of jam and some, with unimprovable wiseguy dialogue, are the key ingredients of a Higgins thriller, and "Cogan's Trade" is as deadpan and deadly ironic and merciless as any such book Higgins ever wrote, and when Dominick is serving up the material straight, it's a beautiful thing. Knowing well that the pleasures of safely traveling to an ugly world where ugly people do ugly things to each other are not in any way uncomplicated, his treatment of violence is intense, and purposefully appalling even as the dirt-under-your-fingernails-attracting, fluorescent-lights-and-linoleum environments that his lowlifes ooze through emit the magnetism of squalor.

Did I say "ugly people?" I did, even though cleanup man Cogan is played by Brad Pitt, who also starred in Dominik's last film and is widely acknowledged to be an attractive individual. He is not uglied up here, and he's maybe valorized a little too much (one of the movie's falser moments comes when he upbraids a slimy subordinate for trying to steal a waitress's tip, although if you look at it as his keeping the kid in line rather than looking out for the working woman I suppose it parses), but he's got some mookily kitschy styling touches and turns in a gratifyingly understated performance. When he reasons with his buttoned-up client proxy (Richard Jenkins), who initially balks at terminating Markie because the organization is getting "corporate" in its decision-making and hence squeamish about murder, Pitt gives off the banal air of a conscientious contractor who's being asked to work with substandard materials. Forced to upbraid a colleague (James Gandolfini, superb as always in a nasty, creepy part) he flew up to subcontract, as it were, after seeing the guy indiscriminately living it up in his hotel room, he simmers with "What did I do to deserve this B.S.?" resentment.

In other words, Pitt plays his killer as just another working stiff trying to get a little bit of his own in these United States today. And at the end, when that character collides head on with the election theme Dominik tends to overstate throughout, it all leads up to a punch line so thoroughly anti-inspirational and mordantly funny and just about perfect that it redeems the excess buildup. See for yourself.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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