Subtelty killer

KRISTIN TILLOTSON | Updated 12/6/2012

Brad Pitt stars in heavy-handed crime drama 'Killing Them Softly.'

Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy in "Killing Them Softly."

"We're all on our own," says Scoot McNairy, who plays charmingly dim robber Frankie in the crime drama "Killing Them Softly." Later, Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, an enforcer sent to knock off some thugs gone rogue, paraphrases that emotion, lamenting a country gone to hell.

Based on the 1970s Boston-set novel "Cogan's Trade," considered one of crime writer George V. Higgins' best books, the film shifts the action to the New Orleans wasteland created by Katrina.

Things begin promisingly. Frankie and Russell (versatile Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn) stick up a Mob-protected card game run by Markie (fetchingly seedy Ray Liotta), another lowlife higher up on the food chain. But after Pitt arrives to straighten things out, calling for backup from a New York hit man debauched to the edge of sanity (James Gandolfini), the story begins to unravel into a series of long one-on-one chats. It's "Mean Streets" meets "My Dinner With Andre."

Written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, the film's look and performances are unflinchingly realistic. But fine acting, arty camerawork and compellingly realistic New Orleans locations are nearly drowned out by wincingly obvious metaphors. Everywhere anybody goes, radios or TVs are blaring politics. Then-President Bush defends dubious economic policy while Obama -- contextualized as a naive Candide -- spouts hope and change. OK, we get it. These ridiculous, heavy-handed parallels are unworthy of a first-year film student, but typical of some foreign filmmakers who revel in painting American corruption and decay with a brush so broad, it flattens complexity and credibility.

In a movie populated by soulless assassins and inept robbers, the characters don't have to be likable. They should, though, be at least occasionally intriguing, or have a surprise or two up their sleeves. Pitt, who co-produced and stars, is the planet around which everything else is supposed to orbit, yet seems only partly present. McNairy, with his nasal whine and goofy malleability, is the most fun to watch of the bunch, and this should be a breakout role for him. The rest of these mopes aren't quite boring, but they have no passion, grimly slouching through Gomorrah from one bloodbath to the next.

A meditation on a life of crime, it ain't. That's all the more disappointing because Dominik's previous achievement, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," also starring Pitt, was original, sophisticated -- and subtle.