Killing Them Softly is an explosive gangster thriller starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins. A longtime hanger-on in the wiseguy world, Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) has come up with a slick plan to roll a mob-protected card game. To complete the actual theft, Johnny turns to Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a jittery young crook who is fresh out of jail and flat broke, and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a gleefully seedy Australian junkie whose latest criminal enterprise involves dog theft. Presidential politics and America's financial crisis are all over the news, but it's little more than background noise to these three guys who are angling to make a quick score in a broken-down city. The conspirators feel assured of success, certain as they are that the mob's suspicions will immediately fall on the game's regular dealer, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). But only a fool believes in a foolproof plan...
Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, like his 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a meticulously crafted film that seeks to capture a certain slice of Americana and also happens to feature Brad Pitt as a less-than-desirable individual who operates above the law. Pitt's character, Jackie, believes that America is one big business, that the dream that so many of its citizens subscribe to is predicated on the idea that money is the only answer, and seeking it out through less-than-desirable means is the most common profession.
So when he is brought in to assess how best to deal with a poker game robbery, he doesn't deal with the situation in any showy fashion, but merely finds the quickest route to completion. Like Jackie, Killing Them Softly doesn't find much time to meander, but is also not shy about the gritty nature of organized crime. The film's few moments of violence are shocking and graphic, but are in no way sensationalized. For all intents and purposes, the film is a by-the-numbers gangster film.
But what makes Killing Them Softly unique, and worth recommending - to those who can stomach a film that appropriately falls into the "slow burn" category - is what its plot represents. Throughout the film there are scenes that feature the current President, and previously as Senator, Obama's various speeches about how he plans to improve America playing in the background, either on TV screens or over the radio. These speeches are, on the one hand, meant to mirror the plot of the film, but at the same time intended to highlight various characters' feelings on organized crime as a business. And director Andrew Dominik doesn't hide his intent either; he puts his message front and center - making it abundantly clear that Killing Them Softly isn't just a film about a robbery, but is also a metaphor-filled fable about the flaws of our capitalist government. For some people that will be wholly off-putting, as the message is dangling there in nearly every scene ensuring even the casual observer understands. But for those who can appreciate a film that is layered and complex, and filled with an interesting cast of characters, Killing Them Softly is worth seeing, even if it is far too on the nose for many seasoned moviegoers' tastes.
Beyond being a decent, but not exceptional, gangster film, and a bold statement about the American Dream and all its flaws, Killing Them Softly is also an actor's showpiece. Director Andrew Dominik, who also wrote the film, crafts scenes that could serve as individually compelling short films where one or two characters exchange dialogue for extended periods of time. After seeing Jesse James and now this it became pretty clear that Dominik isn't a flashy director, but one who likes to let his scenes play out with little to no editing, all the while reveling in pregnant pauses and awkward slip-ups.
A scene between Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, who plays a hit man brought on to "whack" one of the men behind the robbery, goes on for far longer than any mainstream director would let it, but is refreshing in its honesty and unwillingness to be broken down into bare essentials. The film as a whole is structured like that, it never wants to cut to the chase, but is written in such a way that tension can build, relationships can be established, and characters can come to life. This style doesn't make for a film that's easy to watch - many will find these scenes endlessly boring - but for me it worked.
Killing Them Softly's cast, while centered on Brad Pitt, is largely filled with unknown, or relatively unknown actors, who fill their respective roles nicely and who deliver stellar performances in a very dialogue-driven film. From Ray Liotta to Richard Jenkins, each member of the cast finds ways to make their characters unique, and to flesh them out in such a way that few come off as one-note. Particularly commendable are the performances of Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the two thugs who pull off the robbery. Even though Pitt gets top billing it is their characters, Frankie and Russell, who the audience is intended to connect with the most, and thankfully they step up to the plate.
Of course, though, it is Brad Pitt who steals the show in Killing Them Softly. He gets to wield all the weaponry, deal out all the menacing lines of dialogue, and exude a cooler-than-cool attitude that few actors would be able to pull off. Those looking for a film that revels in Brad Pitt at the height of his game will find Killing Them Softly gets the job done, and it does so even whilst he's wearing some pretty goofy shades.
Although Killing Them Softly is more a film where acting and dialogue take center stage, the sound design of the film is still worth commending for its ability to heighten scenes that, for the most part, are not meant to stand out. Dominik's choice of music and implementation of sound (or lack thereof) aren't integral to the success of Killing Them Softly as a whole, but at times scenes come alive because a specific piece of upbeat music is playing or because only the natural sounds of footsteps and ruffling clothing are allowed to come through. However, it is in the film's few graphically violent scenes that the sound design really excels, making the audience shudder at every brutal punch or jump at gunshots that don't sound manufactured. As a result the violence in the film becomes less sensationalized (although there is a slow-motion scene that feels excessive and showy) and all the more shocking. Few films deliver "action" scenes that sound unique and at the same time authentic, but Killing Them Softly is one of them.
November 23, 2012