CANNES - "I like to kill them softly," Brad Pitt rumbles midway through Andrew Dominik's efficiently blood-dampened thriller, his thumb and forefinger taking a rare vacation from the trigger to indulge in some hitman-Zen chin-stroking. "From a distance, too far away for feelings." It's the most immediately quotable line in a screenplay knotted with knowingly flavorful dialogue, and not just because it inadvertently supplies the film with its title, changed late in the game from "Cogan's Trade" -- the well-regarded 1974 pulp novel by George V. Higgins at its source.
Rather, it's the line that most neatly encapsulates the poised pop poetry and, thanks especially to its eventual eponymic status, the on-the-nose emphases of "Killing Them Softly" as a whole, its musical connotations handily underlining the film's scuffed-suede 1970s textures into the bargain. (Make no mistake: Dominik may have ostensibly updated Higgins's story to the present -- or rather, the not-yet-unpacked period of 2008 -- but his melancholic-chic tone here, modulated to just the desired degree of rawness, is all Roberta Flack and no Lauryn Hill.) What it doesn't evoke, however, is the filmmaking itself. Nothing in this coldly enjoyable and relentlessly classy genre trip is killed softly at all: not the broken-bone crunch of the sound design, not the uproariously ripe work of its dream supporting ensemble and certainly not Dominik's bewilderingly literal makeover of Higgins's genre runaround into a portentous essay on capitalist failings in cusp-of-Obama America.