Killing Them Softly - the new crime caper from writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) - is set in 2008, during the panic over the financial collapse and the run-up to Barack Obama's election. You might miss that crucial bit of subtext if you're completely out to lunch.
Andrew: We get it already. We understand that your adaptation of George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade - full of lowlifes, hired killers and an unseen hierarchy of corporate criminals - is a metaphor for the malfeasance that led up to the Great Recession. It's clear from the crime committed by Markie (Ray Liotta), who arranges to steal from the card game he runs and laughs about getting away with it. It's clear from the copycat crime conceived by small-time crook Johnny (Vincent Curatola), who recruits an old acquaintance, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), to do the dirty work. It's clear from the interaction between hired killer Jackie (Brad Pitt) and a crime-boss representative (Richard Jenkins). And man oh man, is it clear from George Bush and Barack Obama, whose voices intrude incessantly.
The damned shame of it is that, for a while anyway, Dominik has the makings of a uniquely down-and-dirty spin on familiar underworld material. McNairy's a terrifically effective weasel, and during the robbery, minimalist tension is built into reasonable behavior without raising the stakes artificially.
Plus, Dominik's story almost has a compelling theme: the role of distance, whether physical or emotional, in coping with guilt. Several solid dialogue sequences revolve around this notion, and the film's title suggests that there's a right way to destroy someone's life - one that's easy on the conscience. But Dominik churns out background-noise references to the economic meltdown anytime there's a moment of dead air. This ham-handedness extends to his visual choices, including an extended bit from the heroin-addled perspective of Frankie's prison buddy, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). And when Dominik doesn't have control of his material, the discursive bits - like a flashback to a failed attempt to burn a stolen car - seem completely pointless.
There's something richly cynical at the core of this film, but Dominik doesn't trust the audience to put the pieces together. We're left with a frustrating tale that, just in case you missed it, is set in 2008, when everyone was greedy and Wall Street functioned like the Mafia.