Killing Them Softly (R) ★★★

Review Date: December 4th, 2012

Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with, whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio, Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well, but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt, it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor, in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.

Of course, Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued, meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all, the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn), who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner, Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.

Unfortunately for them, Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable, his glasses mirror-slick, and his hands steady. His technique is, of course, to kill his victims ''softly,'' from a distance. ''It's so embarrassing,'' he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins, to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle, like Mickey (James Gandolfini), a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. ''There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking,'' he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this, the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country, and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.

The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first, it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy, or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on, Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator, later as president) on TV, but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through, it's obvious, and by the end, overbearing, especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. ''America's not a country, it's a business. Now f**king pay me,'' he tells Jenkins's Driver, in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.

Dominik has only made three films, but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper, but for now, it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience. rated this film 3 stars.