Pitt excels in hard, tough ‘Killing Them Softly’

A relatively simple mob double-cross takes on the majesty of an ancient ritual in “Killing Them Softly,” a tough, high-minded crime picture. Brad Pitt, in excellent form, leads this grim ceremony.

The movie’s based on a 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” by George V. Higgins, but updated to the final stages of the 2008 presidential election. The director is New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik, who worked with Pitt on the haunting western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

The early reels concern the plotting of a mid-level crook (Vincent Curatola) to knock over a high-stakes card game. He hires two sleazos (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) as trigger men for the job.

No need to give the whole backstory, but there’s a reason the host (Ray Liotta) of the card game is going to be blamed for the stickup. To deal with this situation and its aftermath, a gangland middle-management type (Richard Jenkins, who spends almost all of his performance in the front seat of a car) hires a well-regarded hit man to apply muscle and find the guilty party.

That hit man is played by Brad Pitt, whose hair and sideburns surely appear stylish, at least to his own eyes. He brings in a specialist (James Gandolfini) for part of the job, a bad decision that diverts the film through long stretches of Gandolfini’s boozy breakdown.

Dominik has a strong sense of how this should be arranged: The movie is a series of tense dialogue scenes, interrupted periodically by an explosion of violence. The dialogue is lean and lucid, and spills over into modern corporate talk as though to emphasize how much of a business the crime world has become. (It’s a man’s world; the only female character is on screen for about two minutes.)

Less successful is Dominik’s habit of reminding us of the 2008 presidential contest (and the economy going into freefall), which is constantly playing on one TV monitor or another. We only need a nudge to understand we’re meant to see the mobsters as operating under the same dog-eat-dog system that dictates the rest of the country’s behavior.

Despite that heavy hand, “Killing Them Softly” brings a lot of hard, skillful moviemaking to the fore. The fussy hit man is another good role for Brad Pitt, who has clearly entered into his best period as a performer.

Dominik’s pleasure in actors is expressed in the weaselly performances by McNairy and Mendelsohn. McNairy, currently on view in “Argo,” strains all his dialogue through his broken nose, yet makes his screechy hood sympathetic; Mendelsohn, the scary brother in “Animal Kingdom,” is literally greasy from head to foot, and convincingly ready to pass out at any given moment.

It’s hard right now to make a movie about hit men feel fresh, but Dominik and Pitt get well more than halfway there. Plus, the movie ends with a 1970s-style final moment that has you wondering, “How could they end the movie like that?” and then realizing it’s the only way to end it.

“Killing Them Softly” (3 stars)

Brad Pitt turns in an excellent performance as a fussy hit man trying to clean up after a card-game robbery. It’s hard to make a hit-man movie fresh, and the movie’s too insistent about drawing political parallels to its 2008 setting, but director Andrew Dominik gives the proceedings a hard force, and the cast is juicy. With Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy.

Rated: R for violence, language, subject matter.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Meridian, Varsity, Woodinville.

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