The evergreen "crisis of masculinity" story doesn't necessarily come with a baked-in disadvantage - some of the truly great films of all time have been dissections of male self-identity under stress - but it also comes with a certain "prove it to me" mark against it, for the same reason. We've just had so many of them, and it sometimes doesn't seem like there can possibly be that much more to say on the subject.

So it's no surprise that, as far as its themes go, Killing Them Softly feels like something reheated: a gangster movie in which the gangsters use their violent acts as a shield against dealing with their feelings of impotence and uselessness in the modern world, and also rely on that same violence as the proof that they are, still and all, Men, according to the classical gendered definition of what being a man is. So, basically, every gangster movie ever, unless it's that Killing Them Softly is more than typically overt about exploring this theme.

At least the film is, generally speaking, pretty much good: gloriously shot by Greig Fraser (who is having an extremely good 2012) in various shades of industrial-slump brown and yellow - it's an ugly movie, but a beautifully nuanced ugly - stuffed with actors doing wonderfully little things with good parts; dressed up with cynical zingers. It lacks a certain depth, but it crackles with curdled black humor and unflagging momentum, and I am anyway primed to give extra credit to any movie made for grown-ups that's able to do its business in under 100 minutes (Killing Them Softly races to the finish line, credits and all, in 97). So if the point of it is, as director-screenwriter Andrew Dominik has intimated, to make something relatively accessible and entertaining, it has mostly succeeded. Even if it is, in all meaningful ways, a little bit on-the-nose with its ideas. Anyway, it's not like Dominik's last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was a master class in thematic subtlety. It was just a better-made movie, is all.

Killing Them Softly, adapted from George V. Higgins's 1974 novel Cogan's Trade - a considerably better title - is set in an undisclosed city played by New Orleans, though from the onscreen evidence we can't narrow it to anything more specific than "not Florida, New York, or Maryland", in which a small-time mobster, Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) has hatched a plan to knock-off a gangster's poker game, hosted by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta); Markie is a perfect target because he arranged to have one of his own games held up some time earlier, and Squirrel expects that he'll thus be everybody's first suspect, taking the heat off of whomever really perpetrates the theft. So he hires small-time thug Frankie (Scoot McNairy) to do the job, and Frankie ill-advisedly brings on shiftless Australian transplant Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help him; and things go well for the three of them until the unseen and unnamed consortium of gang leaders hire hitman Dillon (a virtually invisible Sam Shepard) to track down and kill the thieves. But Dillon is unavailable, so he sends Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to do the job for him. From the first moments, Jackie hates everything about the job: hates having to deal with the corporatised mob's fussy bureaucratic frontman (Richard Jenkins), hates the dissolute, hooker-addicted hitman Mickey (James Gandolfin) that he's hired to come down from New York to help him, hates the cheerfully shallow aural wallpaper provided by the 2008 presidential elections going around him, with George W. Bush and Barack Obama alternately providing meaningless jargon that's meant to address the economic clusterfuck happening all around each and every one of these characters.

And on this last point, I will heartily join in agreement with Jackie: I, too, would have liked to have heard a good deal less political bromides in Killing Them Softly. Like, none at all, maybe. It's simultaneously the film's most bizarrely insistent feature, as well as perhaps the most inelegantly expressed, that virtually everything in the movie is contrasted in thunderingly explicit terms with the political circus happening all 'round. But even if this is an urgently political movie, I can't for the life of me figure out what, if anything, Dominik thinks he's up to with all those politics. If it were just trying to caustically and nihilistically suggest that politicians are just part of the same venal system of thuggishness that all these various hitmen, gangsters, drug dealers, and thieves are a part of, that would at least be coherent, though it would win no points for radical insight; and Jackie's movie-ending line on this idea, an acidic snarl of anti-patriotic loathing, is so good and so immaculately-delivered by Pitt that I'm willing to forgive a lot of the clumsiness that was required to set it up. But there's something about the way Dominik presents all the electoral year nonsense, so precisely ramping up certain lines on the soundtrack and focusing on televisions at particular instants, so eager to break the film's reality to make sure it gets in there (surely, not all of these tough mobsters would be C-SPAN junkies), that I'm certain he fancies himself up to more than just broad editorial cartooning. What that could be, and whether it was worth nearly destroying the effectively grubby crime plot of Killing Them Softly to get there, is beyond my ability to explain.

Compared to that, the way that every person besides Jackie has their more-or-less explicit moment of "who am I as a male" hand-wringing (it's a movie that very conspicuously and purposefully only offers up one single speaking role for a woman) is hardly worth complaining about: that makes sense, anyway, even if it is rather heavily stressed.

It's a damn shame that the movie is so inelegantly expressed, because The Assassination of Jesse James tackled broadly similar material (the lies that Americans - white American men specifically - tell to themselves about America in order to sleep at night) with such vastly greater success. But absent poppy dialogue and a few terrifically well-staged action scenes (which counterbalance the other, terrifically poor action scenes, or the dreadfully overwrought heroin-use scene), the director doesn't seem very alive to the material, and most of what he's good for is getting strong performances out of a wonderful group of character actors, with only Pitt himself, unfortunately, giving a distinctly B-tier performance given what we know he's capable of. The highlights, I'd wager, are the incompetent thieves played by McNairy and Mendelsohn (the latter of whom appears to be almost entirely constituted out of greasy sweat), the most fallible and thus most human elements in a world that is largely cold and brutal - McNairy in particular is an actor whom I keep forgetting that I really like, and he really is quite extraordinary as the flustered, easily-panicked poseur whose shrill, nervous voice only accentuates his total inability to live up to the world he's placed himself in.

To bring it full circle, then: it's a good crisis of masculinity movie, and a thoroughly entertaining crime picture with way too many world-class jolts of piercing dialogue to count them all, though I'd only think of them as "quotes" if you frequently spend time among people for whom venemous, lacerating cyncism counts as repartee. It's not even remotely up to the standard that Dominik, or Pitt, have set up for themselves, is all, and it's simply too muddled to have any meat on its so very angular bones.