Killing Them Softly is a lurid and nasty little nihilistic hitman noir, with an ingenuity that sneaks up on you. It's the first movie directed by Andrew Dominik since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and once again he has cast Brad Pitt as a low-key, gimlet-eyed sociopath and once again, the screen vibrates. The tough guys Pitt has played all possess a brawny physical fearlessness, yet they draw their power from Pitt's intelligence, his quicksilver-cool awareness. In Killing Them Softly, he's menacingly good as Jackie Cogan, a Mob enforcer who is called in to clean up the mess that follows an underworld card-game robbery committed by two real bottom-feeders: Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who's just nervous enough to sense that he's in over his head, and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a disheveled Australian junkie who can't see past his next fix. The two look like they should be easy enough to deal with, but first Jackie must figure out whether Trattman (Ray Liotta), who runs the poker night, secretly set up the heist himself. Then he's got to smoke out anyone else involved.
On paper, there isn't much to the plot, which Dominik based on the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade. The real drama lies in how these outrageously loquacious lowlifes keep sizing each other up: the back-and-forth scuzziness, the obscenity dancing on the knife-edge of violence. This, of course, is Scorsese Land, Tarantino Land, Mamet Land, and David Chase Land, so you've got to be damn good to play that game.
Dominik is that good. Killing Them Softly is mostly a frazzled series of dialogues that play out in bars, cars, and apartment lairs, but the film is really a hypnotic series of power duels. Dominik plugs us into the moment, so that we're hanging on every word to figure out who's stupid but maybe also street-smart, and who's under whose thumb. The violence can be relentless (Ray Liotta gets the holy living crap beaten out of him in a scene that, for me, was more intense, and more true, than anything in last year's gaudily violent Drive). It can also be weirdly beautiful (a glass-shattering murder, set to the 1962 Ketty Lester hit ''Love Letters,'' is as visually entrancing as anything in Life of Pi).
One of the most captivating characters is James Gandolfini as Mickey, a hitman crony of Jackie's who gets called up from Florida. Gandolfini trots out his familiar inflections, yet he gives this lug a fraying fuse, playing him as a lush who abuses harmless waiters but weeps if his wife waves divorce papers at him. Richard Jenkins is his opposite number, a bone-dry Mob lawyer who is there to tell us that crime has become a detached corporate enterprise. Killing Them Softly is set in late 2008, during the economic collapse (we see background TV clips of Bush and Obama), and it says that the system is rigged, that the cutthroats we're watching are acting out the greedy, rotten impulses of the whole society. That's an awfully grand indictment to balance on the backs of thieves and murderers, yet the movie makes it work. It's a mesmerizing tale of kill-or-be-killed capitalist desperation. A