“Whacking these assholes is a fuckin’ shitty business, pal. They cry, they plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing. I like to kill ’em softly. From a distance.”

Killing Them Softly

At Quality 16 and Rave
The Weinstein Company

That’s Jackie Cogan’s (Brad Pitt, “Inglourious Basterds”) tactful take on what he does to pay the mortgage. It’s a thoughtful attitude — measured and weirdly sympathetic in intention. For a moment, it may even seem as if our mob-hired-hitman antihero is a nice guy.

But make no mistake — this is the closest thing to the grim reaper good moviemaking can offer. Hair greased back, black leather jacket wrapped around a coiled frame and eyes staring vacantly into the distance, Cogan makes it clear from his first Johnny Cash-serenaded scene that he’s the resident badass of this movie, and for that matter, the most apparent reason this film is as good as it is.

The other reason (yes, there’s only one other reason) is a set of scenes sprinkled throughout the film in which two moronic would-be criminals talk about the most random shit imaginable. Think Tarantino, except 10 times as many curse words and 20 times as much vulgarity. The deep, often philosophical topics of discussion include (but are not limited to) drugs, defecation, jail, sex, pet-napping and my personal favorite — bestiality.

Yes, these are the types of conversations that make grandparents blush, but they also feature some of the most brutally cynical dialogue put on screen this year. So cynical, in fact, it at times is mistaken for honesty.

The groundwork for all this cynicism is laid in the routine nature of the plot: A mafia-backed card game gets hit; some unlucky bastards have to pay the price. It’s been done a thousand times, and writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) knows it. So instead of dwelling on his commonplace storyline, Dominik wisely uses it to string some structure into a movie that’s more a commentary on American politics than an actual mob flick.

Perhaps the word “commentary” is an understatement. Dominik’s idea of subtly dissecting the U.S. political landscape through powerful imagery and character interaction falls more along the lines of throwing a brick at the audience in the hopes it’ll hit someone hard enough to somehow change an opinion. It’s blunt, fragmented and makes the rest of the film look like a setup for one of the terrible campaign ads that play throughout.

Political speeches by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush serve as a makeshift soundtrack for most of the film, with Dominik taking special attention to hone in on Cogan’s mocking eyes as lofty ideals of unity and community are thrown around like red and blue confetti. The steely restraint Pitt brings to his portrayal reflects a deeply ingrained sense of apathy. Most people would think the indifference is a consequence of years of shooting people in the face.

But we can’t expect good ol’ Dominik to miss an opportunity to throw bricks at us, can we? No, according to our borderline-nihilist director, the Irish hitman’s poutiness is more likely the result of a resigned acceptance that everything in the world is going to shit — a sentiment personified by has-been button man Mickey (James Gandolfini, TV’s “The Sopranos”).

Gandolfini delivers a visceral performance and colorizes the slow, painful deterioration of a man being ripped to shreds by an alcohol addiction. This is an age of the mob in decline, filled by men unwilling and perhaps unable to let go of the old ways — Mickey represents a byproduct of that hesitation. He, like most of the other characters in the film, is on a collision course with life. When the impact finally arrives, it comes in the form of Cogan’s wrath.

It’s a jarring experience, stylized by a few gorgeously edited scenes of the Irish hitman doing what he does best: ending lives. But he gives his message softly, from a distance. If only Dominik had used a similar approach.

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