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Brad the Hitman

Brad Pitt was nominally the star of Andrew Dominik’s last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, despite being a mythic absence in it as much as he was a presence, and certainly not the protagonist. Killing Them Softly, Dominik’s bleakly electrifying hit-man thriller, parcels Pitt out with even stricter economy, keeping him off-screen for half an hour, and also slanting all his early scenes in favour of the other actors.

Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, a laconic Mob enforcer philosophically taking matters into his own hands, grabs possession of the movie only towards the end, by which time most of these other candidates are laid out on mortuary slabs.

Unfolding in a thoroughly grey and defeated version of modern America, which would read as the ’70s if it weren’t for 2008’s election campaign blaring out from every TV set, Dominik’s movie is elegantly brutal and tough as old rope, the rope in question being a 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade, by George V. Higgins. Borrowing his muddy colour palette and dispassionate lens from the crime flicks of Don Siegel, Dominik has shifted Higgins’s setting from Boston to Katrina-blasted New Orleans, where every sound bite from Obama, McCain and Bush has a habit of ringing equally hollow.

There’s certainly not much hope for Frankie (outstanding Scoot McNairy) or Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, persuading us that his character hasn’t washed in a decade). This scuzzy duo are talked into the armed robbery of a protected poker game, trusting the crime to be pinned on previous double-dealer Markie (Ray Liotta). Not least because their masks are so obviously see-through, it’s a sequence that bristles with the constant fear that they’re going to screw things up: these two are lost causes, and somehow we like them. Best not to get too attached, though — by the time Pitt comes sidling up to McNairy’s Frankie with chummy hints of what trouble he’s facing, his bravado has evaporated and we’re left with a small boy quaking in his boots.

Dominik’s real subject (from 2000’s Chopper onwards) hasn’t been the mindset of psychopaths so much as a particular kind of male terror — a dread of the pack turning. His movie is thick with irony, borrowing its chirpy soundtrack straight from Scorsese, and hammers home its oppressive ideas about the state of the nation so bluntly it’s a little bruising. Far from the sinuous crime epic we might have expected, it’s more like a caustic but thoroughly impressive kick in the teeth.