Dominik’s aiming for mood rather than overt symbolism: The film’s background, often literally out of focus, is ripe with disaster and the hollow bromide of “Hope and Change,” a slogan that means less than nothing to the characters. The conceit borders on the arrogant and often crosses over, yet “Killing Them Softly” pulls off its reach in the last scene, when Cogan (in a speech notably not in Higgins’s original) lets the mob lawyer know exactly what he thinks the election of a new president means and doesn’t mean.
As performed by Pitt with gunmetal scorn, the scene seems absurd at first (what, Cogan’s suddenly an expert in American history?), yet the final lines slam shut like a prison door on the audience’s fingers. By making a film entirely without illusions about the way this country does business — at the top as at the bottom — “Killing Them Softly” ironically stays true to “Cogan’s Trade” and Higgins’s cauterizing view of human nature. Let the likes of Steven Spielberg renew our faith in the communal ideals with which we lull ourselves to sleep. This movie’s the anti-“Lincoln,” and it jeers in your head long after the lights come up.