NEW YORK — Though ambitious and well-acted, the crime drama "Killing Them Softly" (Weinstein) is also brutally violent and deeply cynical. Taken together, its explosive gore and jaundiced view of the world make it unsuitable for audiences of any age.
That's all the more unfortunate since, like some of its best Depression-era predecessors, writer-director Andrew Dominik's descent into the law-flouting underworld has a point to make about the ethical flaws hidden within that environment's seemingly more respectable, aboveground counterpart.
The tautly maintained action begins as three small-time thieves -- would-be wise guy Johnny (Vincent Curatola), down-on-his-luck ex-con Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and narcotics-addled Australian lowlife Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) -- plot a raid on a Mafia-protected gambling den. They're hoping to pin the blame for their heist on Markie (Ray Liotta), the card dealer who runs the operation.
As flashbacks reveal, Markie once pulled off an inside job by hiring thugs to carry out a similar robbery, but was eventually forgiven by his mob superiors. So the trio behind this new caper hopes the higher-ups will assume Markie is the traitorous mastermind this time as well.
Their plan succeeds initially. But things begin to unravel when a businesslike, appropriately anonymous Cosa Nostra middle manager (Richard Jenkins) sets relentlessly professional hit man Jackie Cogan (a subdued, smoldering Brad Pitt) on their trail.
Dominik uses sound bites from the 2008 financial crisis to suggest a moral equivalence between Wall Street and organized crime, an equation some might find convincing, others merely facile. He also employs then-Sen. Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric from the same year's presidential campaign to imply that the American dream an idealistic delusion.
As embodied in Pitt's casually murderous character, and that of Mickey (James Gandolfini) -- a fellow gun-for-hire who's on the skids -- Dominik's corrosive satire goes deeper still, undermining all notions of morality and, indeed, of meaning.
Slow-motion rub-outs and the sight of a wounded character crawling in his own blood may be intended as an unflinching look at the consequences of amoral mayhem. But their explicitness -- one scene even recalls the horrifying details of Abraham Zapruder's famous home movie of the assassination of President Kennedy -- still goes beyond the pale.
The film contains excessive graphic violence, including gruesome murders and a prolonged, bloody beating, drug use, brief partial rear nudity, a prostitution theme, seamy sexual talk, numerous instances of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.