Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly begins with three street-level crooks planning to knock over a mob-protected card game run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta), who had hired some guys to rob his own game a few years ago. The three schemers figure the blame will fall on Trattman if it happens again, and they'll escape retribution.
Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) enters the scene at about the 30-minute mark, movie star handsome in his leather jacket but utterly cold-blooded. He's the chilling main enforcer for the local hard case, Dylan (played by Sam Shepard in a brief cameo), whom the higher-ups use to rough up or snuff out inconvenient underworld figures.
Unlike the stylized and iconic (you might almost say poetic) figures of "The Sopranos" or the Godfather films, these Mafia wiseguys all dwell at the bottom of the food chain, without apparent opportunity for advancement. Messages and money are relayed from the big shots by middlemen who give Pitt and Shepard their orders but are never actually seen or heard.
The off-screen Mafioso get rich while the characters on screen are subjected to humiliation, poverty, tedium and terror. (James Gandolfini is particularly effective as a pathetic, burned-out compatriot of Cogan, an indication of the toll a lifetime spent killing and scrapping with the law can take on a man, even one who used to be good at it.)
Back where they started
Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas got to spend their ill-gotten gains, albeit briefly, on flashy suits, cool cars and nights out their gorgeous girlfriends and/or wives. By contrast, when the three schemers in Killing Them Softly rip off $30,000 from the card game, their rewards amount to a used car, a large packet of heroin, and Budweisers consumed in the same dive bars they'd frequented previously. They're just where they started, only now they await certain retribution by a bunch of very scary people.
Last year's entry in the downbeat gangster movie sweepstakes— Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive— did an admirable job of portraying the consequences of violence. But its plot was essentially fantastical, as Ryan Gosling's character dispatched mob bosses left, right and center. No such heroic story arc can be discerned in Killing Them Softly— only Cogan's methodic and unsympathetic quest to demonstrate the meaning of the term "mob-protected card game," and just why you should avoid attempting to rob one.